Can You Write Better Than a Robot?

by James Scott Bell

It definitely is coming—Artificial Intelligence churning out commercial fiction faster than a thousand James Pattersons typing 200 words a minute for 100 years. In a story titled “The rise of robot authors: is the writing on the wall for human novelists?The Guardian states:

The dream, or nightmare, of totally machine-generated prose seemed to have come one step closer with the recent announcement of an artificial intelligence that could produce, all by itself, plausible news stories or fiction. It was the brainchild of OpenAI – a nonprofit lab backed by Elon Musk and other tech entrepreneurs – which slyly alarmed the literati by announcing that the AI (called GPT2) was too dangerous for them to release into the wild…

The program has been used to generate news reports, but only by cobbling together stories from the wealth of information already out there on the net. But what about fiction? You can’t cobble, for that is called, ahem, plagiarism.

Right now, novelists don’t seem to have much to fear. Fed the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – the machine continued the narrative as follows: “I was in my car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of science.”

But won’t AI continue to feed, consume, learn, grow, and finally take over? Come on, you’ve seen The Terminator. You know how this ends!

So for now, we have to make the machines bend to our will, which is what I did over at a site called Plot Generator. It’s kind of fun for brainstorming. Indeed, you can ask it for story ideas and it will generate a list for you in nothing flat. I did that recently, and my list included:

In a world where zombies are wealthy, one student has no choice but to save mankind by eating her own great uncle.


Next, I decided to have the program write me a short story so I could fulfill my daily quota by sitting back and sipping my coffee. (Not really. That would be cheating!)

Anyway, all I had to do was click on “Fill entire form with random ideas” and (John Madden voice) boom, there was my pre-planning. Then I clicked on “Write me a short story” and boom, it was done (including the title)! The whole process took five seconds. Here it is. (I am not even going to try to guess at the copyright question. will AI have standing in a court of law? There’s a story idea right there!)

The Sun That Shone Like Rampaging Koalas

A Short Story by James Scott Bell

Tristan Cockle looked at the spotty ruler in his hands and felt active.

He walked over to the window and reflected on his dirty surroundings. He had always loved beautiful Shanghai with its motionless, mashed mountains. It was a place that encouraged his tendency to feel active.

Then he saw something in the distance, or rather someone. It was the figure of Jenny MacDonald. Jenny was an incredible angel with pointy lips and greasy fingernails.

Tristan gulped. He glanced at his own reflection. He was a considerate, scheming, whiskey drinker with scrawny lips and scrawny fingernails. His friends saw him as a long, loopy lover. Once, he had even helped a whispering baby cross the road.

But not even a considerate person who had once helped a whispering baby cross the road, was prepared for what Jenny had in store today.

The sun shone like rampaging koalas, making Tristan cross.

As Tristan stepped outside and Jenny came closer, he could see the quaint glint in her eye.

Jenny gazed with the affection of 5383 courageous grotesque gerbils. She said, in hushed tones, “I love you and I want a phone number.”

Tristan looked back, even more cross and still fingering the spotty ruler. “Jenny, exterminate,” he replied.

They looked at each other with concerned feelings, like two skinny, shallow snakes walking at a very ruthless disco, which had orchestral music playing in the background and two spiteful uncles hopping to the beat.

Tristan studied Jenny’s pointy lips and greasy fingernails. Eventually, he took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” began Tristan in apologetic tones, “but I don’t feel the same way, and I never will. I just don’t love you Jenny.”

Jenny looked calm, her emotions raw like a melted, modern map.

Tristan could actually hear Jenny’s emotions shatter into 4509 pieces. Then the incredible angel hurried away into the distance.

Not even a glass of whiskey would calm Tristan’s nerves tonight.

Pretty awful and absurd, but I’m willing to bet there are actually some readers out there who might find this deep and profound (especially in states that have legalized recreational marijuana). The first line is lousy, but I actually found the last line resonant (just not connected to anything that made sense).

Let’s face it. AI can defeat the world’s best Chess and Go masters. Do we really think it won’t eventually write a commercially successful genre novels? Or create a social media presence for its “author” pages? Or refuse to open the pod bay doors?

Not yet! Fight on!

On this date I am confident in saying I can write better than a robot. Indeed, I can teach you to do the same. I’m happy to announce that I’ve partnered with The Great Courses in a 24-lecture series, “How to Write Best-Selling Fiction.” It’s at a special launch price right now. Check it out…before the machines come knocking at your door.

What about you? Can you write better than a robot? Would you buy a novel written by HAL 9000? 

You’d better, otherwise:

39 thoughts on “Can You Write Better Than a Robot?

  1. A few of the lines from your (y’all’s?) story sound like 1960’s San Francisco (Richard Brautigan) –
    • He had always loved beautiful Shanghai with its motionless, mashed mountains.
    • The sun shone like rampaging koalas…
    • her emotions raw like a melted,…map.
    But there ain’t no “soul” connecting thses “post-beat/pre-hippie” observations, and I don’t see how you can create that in artificial anything, which is what’s really scary about AI – it will know more, and compute faster, but even if (when?), it gets the thesaurus app figured out (and quits repeating “greasy fingernails”), it’ll still be lacking that nonlinear thing that sparks the creative process – imagination – or as you like to put it, the ability to ask ” What if?” After all, it’s ARTIFICIAL…

    Would I read HAL 9000’s first? Maybe, but I’d check it out of – or download it from – the library…

    • George, I wish you had stuck with the “soul” idea longer. I think it’s more than “that non linear thing….” It’s what lets us identify with, empathize with, sympathize with the characters/situations in fiction or poetry. The moral and existential plights of the characters touch us because we know they come from a fellow human–a fellow mensch, we hope.

      What’s scary is that as I read the computer’s story, I found myself somehow identifying with the narrator even knowing it wasn’t coming from a human–despite struggling with the disjointed descriptions and metaphors. It’s scary that maybe I’m projecting soul into it.

      If so, what does that imply re the future of AI creative writing? And the future of propaganda?

    • George, I’m so glad you mentioned Brautigan! I was really into Brautigan in high school. And you’re right; while some lines could have come from In Watermelon Sugar, there’s a central “soul” missing. Can AI develop one?

      • Not on its own, I think, and I’m Presbyterian enough to believe not with our help, either… Which is what really makes it scary~ not only soulless writing, but soulless, amoral decision making on life and death matters (a la HAL, Terminator, et al. [et AI?])

        The question then is what happens first, a soulful AI, or a thousand monkeys eventually typing GONE WITH THE WIND…?

    • It’s the best use of that site, Cynthia. Idea sparkers. Now that you mention it, a “whispering baby” is creepy in a Dean Koontz or Twin Peaks kind of way.

  2. Wow. It’s frightening that the AI even managed to cobble together a short story. What it can’t do is capture the elusive “voice” that draws readers in and keeps them coming back to their favorite authors. And as others have mentioned, I couldn’t feel a soul behind the words. Still scary, though!

  3. Speaking for considerate, scheming whiskey drinkers everywhere, I found that story to be courageous effort – as courageous as a grotesque gerbil.

    I had doubts AI could pull the job off, but as I read, those doubts shattered into 4,314 pieces.

  4. ? My oldest son is named Tristan. I’m sending him this link for the giggles.

    I will admit the premise of AI written fiction made me uneasy at first, thank you for the experiment to prove that it’s not really feasible. Not just “yet”, but ever. Not in my opinion anyway. AI might be able to put the right words together in the right tense with the proper grammar, but that’s all your going to get. Perfect punctuation will never capture a human connection and that’s what people want most from what they read. They get that from us when we tap into our experiences and vulnerabilities and put them into words. AI can’t do that. I don’t care what genre you write, that’s a magic that only we posses.

    • It’s really a fascinating thing to contemplate, Michelle. Can machines ever capture that “spark” we call human? Can they learn to fake it? One of my favorite SF movies of all time is the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where people were exactly replicated, to the point where it was almost impossible to tell…yet they lacked that spark.

  5. When I was in college–not long after some of the 50s beatniks changed clothes, bathed less often even, left the coffee houses and poured out into the streets to sit in the streets, strum guitars, and hate the war, and became known as hippies–I would listen to some of their writings and readings.

    You know: the kind of literature that the cool New Yorkers and Angelenos considered ultra-cool and hip. The kind that was supposedly enhanced by the products made by the ones Patrick Swayze described as, trustees of modern chemistry. The chemistry put them, they said, in touch with stuff that no one knew existed. It, they said, touched their souls. The literature they produced, they said, helped define their lives, their existence, their . . . generation. Yet, to me, their writings, their rantings, their literature that they contended had and exuded soul and peace, always sounded empty. As if the hippie poets and writers simply strung together words and words and words, to make them sound profound as well as profane. It all still sounded empty. All of those words and words and words simply strung together, pouring out of the empty souls and unbrushed mouths, all needing . . . life,

    THAT’S what The Sun That Shone Like Rampaging Koalas sounded like to me: empty, soulless, like an slur of words strung together and pouring out of the mouth of a shirtless lump of smelly flesh, eyelids hanging low, sitting somewhere near the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

    Brrr. (By the way: that’s the name of my new poem. It’s for sale for several American dollars AND a glassine packet of . . . well, you know. Knock. Ask for Hunkpapa. )

  6. Nah, not buying it. By the time AI robots can create a truly viable novel that’s more than a bunch of quasi-related sentences strung together (sorry Tristan and Jenny,) we’ll have much, much bigger problems with AI, than that.

  7. Interesting. I just gave the short story generator a try, plugging in my own choices for the requested terms. The resulting story showed the same structural elements as yours. So clearly the generator is using some kind of template. I wonder if there are other templates and I just happened to hit the same one as you?

    The template indicates that somewhere there is a mind, and maybe a soul (about whose character I won’t speculate). Can an AI story generator work without some kind of humanly-conceived plot structure and, perhaps, a more specific template that will reflect human design?

    • Good detective work, Eric. AI will no doubt learn enough genre tropes to string together something “original,” and then can eliminate is human masters.

  8. Very interesting topic and discussion. One likes to think that we are special, cannot be duplicated, or replaced. The answer for me lies in another place – faith. Still, how close could science come to replicating human emotions and thought? How much of it will we see in our lifetime? And a bigger question? Why? To see if they can? For the money? For other reasons we can’t fathom?

    It sounds like the future will be anything but boring. Then, there is that Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

  9. The image of rampaging koalas it stuck in my mind like an old bad song that haunts your brain for days.

  10. Congratulations on your new course for The Great Courses. It looks like it will be a synthesis of all your teaching and books in one place. A great deal for someone starting out or wanting a review of ‘the master class.”

    I’ve read and reread the discussion of today’s subject. Heart, soul, emotion, life, and personal voice and experience – I don’t see the computer ever being able to “create” those things. The computer can only produce what it has been programmed to produce. How do you put heart, soul, emotion, and life into a computer?

    • Thanks, Steve. Indeed, I do have a lecture in the course on deepening the emotional experience for the reader. If AI absorbs it, who knows? Am I contributing to my own demise? At least I hope AI pays for the course…

  11. Thank you for sharing this, James. I haven’t laughed this hard in ages! I love the title. And I love that Jenny’s emotions shattered into 4509 pieces. It’s very specific.

  12. Dare I say that the title reminds me just a little of Douglas Adams?

  13. AI-generated books lack the poetry of a human mind. The example above is good, and it’s even understandable. But the sentences are the same length. It’s dull. I’d rather stab myself in the eyes than read a whole book like that. At best, I think it’ll always be experimental fiction. (Then there’s the people who think that the Beast in Revelation will be an AI that has achieved singularity … which is pretty horrifying.)

    Anyway, if you want a real howler of an AI book, try reading what happens when you feed all 7 Harry Potter books to an neural network. “Harry Potter and the portrait of what looked like a large pile of ash”.

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