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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Are Robots Writing Books – Or This Blog?

Can robots write books?

I have no doubt they can and believe they could have published one or more books already.

This debate is not similar to asking if one believes in UFOs or the ability of someone to see the future.  In those cases, no one can prove anything just. Those are rhe domain of sci-fi, at least for now.  But the idea of a robot or a computer or a well-written piece of software code being able to write a book is not far off.  I really wonder if it’s already happened.

I’m not talking about a computer scanning and gathering human-created non-fiction articles and binding them into a book the way Google searches locate Web sites based on key words.  I’m talking about novels.

I would think a computer can spit out millions of 200-page texts but it would take a team of editors to read them to find those that made sense or were any good.  So the creative process would no longer be the domain of humans.  We would only be there to see that gibberish or boring books aren’t published.  Our job would be more inspector than writer.  We’d be there for quality control like someone looking at cars in a factory to ensure they don’t release ones with defects.

I recall writing about this possibility over 20 years ago, back in the late 80’s when I was an idealistic college student who wanted to not only explore everything but to find finite answers to the most elusive questions. But I know now that I used to see the glass half full and now it’s closer to being half empty.

How would we know if some computer-published book has already been released to the public?  We wouldn’t.

There are books published anonymously or with ghost writers, so why not a ghost robot?  Look no further than Amazon who’d have the technology, capability, and the incentive and motive to produce a book it can sell exclusively – and not have to pay publisher or author royalties.  If I was Amazon, I’d invest in this artificial intelligence line.

Amazon already threatens bookstores with online book sales and alienates publishers by publishing its own authors, and threatens authors by limiting their success with exclusionary deals.  The final frontier is to screw the author with a push of the button so robot author can punch out scripts.

It’s a matter of statistical probability that a computer, fed our language, history, and grammatical rules, will eventually churn out several hundred pages of a really interesting novel.  All you need is to have enough computers going non-stop, at a fast speed, to produce a large enough sample to have qualified editors sift through.

How screwed up would it be for people to embrace robot texts?  Writing and reading seem like such personal, intellectual endeavors and yet we’ll soon have people loving stories that no one wrote. Literature, though filled with fantasies, make-believe, and adventures, are linked to the views, experiences, emotions, and thoughts of a living soul who can write from a place of knowing and feeling.  We believe our fiction reflects life, it even inspires how it is lived.  Would it not be a fraud to start living a life given to us from a machine?

Or does none of it matter?  Who cares who or what wrote a book?  We should judge a book on the merits of what it does for us – how it makes us feel, think and act.  Its origin or creator shouldn’t matter – should it?

This past week’s New York Times Book Review featured an essay about computers gathering and organizing text and producing books that consist of collections of articles form Wikipedia.  The article’s writer, Pagan Kennedy, poses this question:

“Could robots ever be trusted to write original novels, histories, scientific papers and sonnets?  For years, artificial-intelligence experts have insisted that machines can succeed as authors.  But would we humans ever want to read the robot-books?”

The answer is likely “yes.”  People will buy them out of curiosity.  Or they will buy them unknowingly purchasing a book written by no one. IBM has built a computer to beat humans at chess and Jeopardy.  Computers dictate our lives, influencing who we friend on Facebook, where we eat and shop, and how we come to know the things we know.  Humans always feared robots would replace us at work and run our lives.  We co-exist with them.  These robots aren’t walking amongst us – they are in our homes, our pants pockets, and everywhere we are in the form of gadgets and computers.

Soon they may very well churn out great, fantastical literature that reveal new possibilities to humanity.  If our reality can be sparked by our fiction then humanity’s fate may rest in some computer algorithm that matches a string of words the way traffic signals or elevators work.  The possibilities are endless.  Computers will both advance humanity and subjugate it simultaneously.  We’ll feel a freedom of mind beyond what we could feel on our own but we’ll also feel enslaved to a machine.

Can we enhance society while dehumanizing it?  We’ll soon find out if the ends will justify the means.

Interview With Lucille Rettino, Director of Marketing, Children's Publishing Group, Simon & Schuster

  1. Lucille, what are the challenges unique to marketing children’s books? One unique challenge and probably the biggest is marketing to kids 13 years of age and under. We know kids are online earlier and earlier, but with COPPA Compliance laws etc. there are restrictions on how we can reach these kids. Unlike adults or teens where we can message our audience directly, to reach younger kids we often need to tap into existing communities (Poptropica, Woozworld, Imbee) to deliver our marketing messages.

  1. What do you love about being in the book publishing industry? One of my favorite things about working in publishing and marketing books is the idea that with each new book there is an opportunity to try something new. Yes, there are genres of books and series that are marketed in similar ways, but as no two books are alike each publication allows you to use your creativity and think of different ways to reach your audience.

  1. Look into your crystal ball: where is the industry heading? Oh, how I wish I had a crystal ball… The only thing I am truly certain about is that the industry is changing and no one knows exactly how things will shake out. That said, I think the publishing industry as a whole has done a great job at adapting to these changes. Whether embracing and not bemoaning the rise of the e-book or investing in new technologies, publishing houses are making great efforts to stay current and react to how our business is evolving. With all this change today is a very exciting time to be in publishing and I am glad to be part of it.

  1. What advice do you have for authors who want to market and promote their books? In working with authors writing teen books a common refrain is: "get and stay connected." Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, Linkedin etc. --the best thing an author can do to market themselves and their books it to connect directly to fans. Teens want and these days expect a personal connection with authors--they want to follow them on twitter or be their Facebook friend. For a new author I would suggest that they friend/connect with other authors who write similar books allowing them to tap into that authors fans.  

  1. Will children’s book move online as e-books with the same speed and success as some adult books have? We have already seen a percentage of children's p-book sales migrate to e-books mainly in the teen category-- although not to the same extent of adult publishing. Conversion to middle-grade e-books has been slower and slower still has been the picture book. I do think that with new devices and technologies (that can support enhanced e-books) picture books especially will see a marked increase in e-book sales. Although e-book conversion is steadily increasing, I do not think that children's books will ever match the percentage of adult p- to e-books. The education market and inability to replicate the intimate experience of reading to a child are two of the reasons I believe this to be true.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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