An AI-Written Novella Almost Won a Literary Prize

A short novel co-written by humans and AI passed the first round of a Japanese literary contest

robot hand
KTSDESIGN/Science Photo Library/Corbis

In the future, artificial intelligence may not just be relegated to the role of personal assistant or data analyzer: it may also make art. A novella co-written by an AI program and its human assistants made it through the first round of selection for a Japanese literary prize.

The novella, whose title translates to "The Day a Computer Writes a Novel," was one of 11 AI-authored submissions to the third-annual Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award. The award is known for accepting writing from both humans and machines, but this was the first time it has received submissions from AI programs, Emiko Jozuka reports for Motherboard.

“So far, AI programs have often been used to solve problems that have answers, such as Go and shogi,” Hitoshi Matsubara, a computer scientist at Future University Hakodate and leader of the team that created the novelist AI, tells the Yomiuri Shimbun. “In the future, I’d like to expand AI’s potential [so it resembles] human creativity.”

To win the Hoshi Shinichi Award, a written work must make it through four rounds of competition. Judges are not told which of the submissions are written by humans and which are generated by machines, Andrew Tarantola reports for Engadget. "The Day a Computer Writes a Novel" aptly follows a computer program as it realizes its capabilities as a writer and abandons its pre-programmed duties. But after the short novel made it through the first round of judging, the judges decided it did not cut it against its human competition.

“I was surprised at the work because it was a well-structured novel,” science fiction writer and award judge Satoshi Hase said at a press conference, the Yomiuri Shimbun reports. “But there are still some problems [to overcome] to win the prize, such as character descriptions.”

While this may be an exciting development for AI researchers coming on the tail of Google’s AlphaGo program beating one of the world’s best Go players at the famously complex strategy game, the next Harper Lee won’t be a computer. As Jacob Brogan writes for Slate’s "Future Tense" blog, the fact that the novel was “coauthored” by the AI’s human handlers says a lot about how far artificial intelligence still has to go.

"The idea that a computer 'wrote' a novel about a computer evinces just how much humans involved themselves," Brogan writes. "While a monkey at a typewriter might eventually write Hamlet, it probably wouldn’t end up writing a play about monkeys writing Hamlet first, which is what seems to have happened here."

The AI in question wrote the novel only after its designers wrote their own and distilled it into its basic components: words, sentences, and basic structure. Based on these parameters, the computer used an algorithm to essentially remix a new novella out of the original piece. Brogan says that while AI may develop greater capacity for creativity in coming years, it will most likely stay collaborative, such as with predictive typing on smartphones. While computers may be able to make their own art in the future, for the time being they are stuck working as our aides.

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