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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

24 November, 2004

Writing with by a computer

Consider this passge:
Dave Striver loved the university - its ivy-covered clocktowers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun-splashed verdant greens and eager youth. The university, contrary to popular opinion, is far from free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world: academia has its own tests, and some are as merciless as any in the marketplace. A prime example is the dissertation defense: to earn the Ph.D., to become a doctor, one must pass an oral examination on one's dissertation. This was a test Professor Edward Hart enjoyed giving.
If it hadn't been for my corny title, would you have guessed a computer program wrote it? Bad scene for us aspiring writers? In The New York Times, Daniel Akst's essay is reassuring.
Fortunately, flesh-and-blood writers are nowhere near having to hang up their turtlenecks. When I called Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist whose research focuses on language and cognition, he pointed out that the human brain consists of 100 trillion synapses that are subjected to a lifetime of real-world experience. While it is conceivable that computers will eventually write novels, Dr. Pinker says, "I doubt they'd be very good novels by human standards."
And there's this:
It was Simon's ideas - particularly his notion of "satisficing" - that first got me interested in fiction-writing machines. Though in theory a person shopping for new shoes could consider all the pairs on the planet, in fact, the cost is way too high - an entire life spent shoe-shopping. So in the real world we visit one or two stores, try on a few in our size and buy a pair.
Satisficing in this way - settling, or even sensing, what is good enough - is something novelists must do as well. We think of an idea and go with it because pausing to systematically consider every plot twist, character or phrase that might come next would lead nowhere.
Computers are just as subject as humans to Simon's "bounded rationality." Computers cannot create narratives by using brute computational force to mindlessly try every alternative. It may be fun to think that 10,000 monkeys typing for 10,000 years will sooner or later randomly produce "Paradise Lost," but evidently this is no more plausible for silicon than simians. Computers don't even play chess this way, Dr. Pinker told me, having noted elsewhere that the number of possible sentences of 20 words or less that the average person can understand is perhaps a hundred million trillion, or many times the number of seconds since the universe was born. "The possibilities boggle the mind very quickly," he says.
Whew. For a minute, i was wondering if we'd have to dump the Stories at the Coffee Table project. Can breathe a little easier now. [Link via Amardeep Singh.]


Blogger SPECKLED_BAND said...

Peter, this is fun! And since you mention Steven Pinker, read his "The Language Instinct", you'll love it.

24 November, 2004 08:08  
Blogger manisha lakhe said...

Please delete the last line about the SATCT, Zig...some sleepy souls might simply read it and jump to wrong conclusions...avenging angels might have to descend upon you!

Steven Pinker is marvelous...don't always agree with him, but cannot ignore him...

24 November, 2004 09:36  

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