Computers And Literature

What do you think?  Will a computer ever be able to write a novel?  Or paint a masterpiece?  Or compose a great symphony?  Or any symphony?

Limiting this discussion to writing novels and their shorter cousins the short story, will a computer, following only the directions of its programming software, ever be able to write something profound?  The act of writing consists of putting words down on paper or a computer screen one at a time in a very specific and profound order.  There are many rules for writing, from simple rules of grammar, such as a sentence has to have a subject and a predicate, to more complex rules that mandate how stories are structured and presented.  “Show; don’t tell,” and its ilk, for example.  Theoretically, it should be possible to program a computer to make those choices.  I suspect there are a finite number of rules by which stories are told, and a good programmer should be able to set them down in such a manner that a novel will result.  After all, we do now have software in most computers that will translate a line in one language to that of another.  And most word-processing programs have spell and grammar checkers.  That’s a step in the appropriate direction, at least.  They aren’t very good right now (in fact they’re downright terrible) but they do represent the first step in getting computers to become independent thinkers.  However, there is one very big step ahead for computers and their writing ability.  That is, inspiration.

The editing software currently in our computers is all reactive, as opposed to proactive.  A human writer conceives of a story line and begins to put it down on paper.  This is the act of inspiration and creation.  The human mind can conceive of stories of people, things and events that have never happened and, in most cases, never will.  How do we do it?  I don’t know.  How did H.G. Wells conceive of Martians invading Earth with green death rays?  How do I write the stories I write?  Where does that inspiration come from?  Apparently it’s due to the brain’s ability to absorb and digest all the details of human life and re-arrange them into stories of people and events that never existed.  The current computer software we have is limited.  It can act only on that which has already been written.  To my knowledge, no computer has ever proactively written anything.  On the other hand, science fiction is full of proactive computers.  HAL on “2001-A Space Odyssey,” Data on “Star Trek, The Next Generation,” and so forth.  It’s clear, then, that we expect computers in the next few centuries to be able to talk back to us, and perhaps even write for us.  I suspect it’s only a matter of time before computers write first-rate novels.  After all, Data took up painting, although his attempts were decidedly inferior.

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