The Null Device

Entertained by machines of loving grace

Today in algorithmic content creation: Philip Parker, a professor of marketing in the US, has created an algorithm that automatically generates books on a variety of subjects, gathering information on the internet in the way a human author would. The article suggests that the result is of a somewhat higher quality than the usual spam ebooks harvested from Wikipedia articles:
To be clear, this isn’t just software alone but a computer system designated to write for a specific genre. The system’s database is filled with genre-relevant content and specific templates coded to reflect domain knowledge, that is, to be written according to an expert in that particular field/genre. To avoid copyright infringement, the system is designed to avoid plagiarism, but the patent aims to create original but not necessarily creative works. In other words, if any kind of content can be broken down into a formula, then the system could package related, but different content in that same formula repeatedly ad infinitum.
The hundreds of thousands of books generated by this system range from the fairly generalist and relatively cheap (Webster’s English to Haitian Creole Crossword Puzzles: Level 1, which can be yours for $14.95; incidentally, “Webster's” is not a trademark) to the more specialised and pricy (The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats for $795). As the system works on demand, it is even possible to fill the catalogue with books that could exist, and generate the books when someone buys one; it's Borges' Infinite Library as a money-making scheme.
In truth, many nonfiction books — like news articles — often fall into formulas that cover the who, what, where, when, and why of a topic, perhaps the history or projected future, and some insight. Regardless of how topical information is presented or what comes with it, the core data must be present, even for incredibly obscure topics. And Parker is not alone in automating content either. The Chicago-based Narrative Science has been producing sport news and financial articles for Forbes for a while.
And following on his success with auto-distilled technical and factual tracts, Parker is next applying his system to the potentially even more lucrative field of romance novels (which have the advantage of both being defined by a formula, not requiring a huge amount of originality, and being the largest share of the consumer book market).

And if romance novels fall next, followed in short order by other functionally formulaic genres (techno-thrillers, for example, or police procedurals), we may soon find ourselves entertained by machines of loving grace. Though there's no reason why it should stop at books; given that the scripts of mass-market films (with the amounts of money invested in their production and the bottom-line-oriented conservatism of the corporations holding the purse strings) are already produced by a highly formulaised process (scriptwriters use special software to define the skeletons of their plots, making sure it fits in the formal constraints of the genre), going further and writing software that will make the plot to the next action blockbuster or quirky indie comedy would be relatively easy. Of course, today, it makes little sense to replace the scriptwriters with a piece of software whilst keeping all the actors, cameramen, lighters, gaffers and best boys on the payroll, though this may change as computer graphics technologies improve:

Using 3D animation and avatars, a variety of audio and video formats can be generated, and Parker indicates that these are being explored. Avatars that read compiled news stories might become preferred, especially if viewers were allowed to customize who reads the news to them and how in-depth those stories need to be.
Then, eventually, the software will be miniaturised and commodified, becoming more widely available. Rather than belonging to content barons who fill the stores with algorithmically generated pulp fiction and technical literature, it'll live in your phone, tablet or e-reader, and will tell you stories, sing you songs and show you movies tailored to entertain you, based on your previous selections.

There are 2 comments on "Entertained by machines of loving grace":

Posted by: Greg Tue Dec 18 09:48:02 2012

Those super-obscure books would make for good ironic Xmas gifts.

Did you patent the Postmodernism Generator?

Posted by: acb Tue Dec 18 11:13:23 2012

I didn't. For one, the prior art is pretty transparent (part of it's a page of Hofstadter's “Gödel, Escher, Bach”).