The chip starts a new chapter

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT COULD almost be the beginning of an ordinary novel ...

"David Striver loved the university. He loved the ivy-covered clock towers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun splashed verdant greens and eager youth. He also loved the fact that the university is free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world."

But they are not the words of a living - or even dead - author. They are from Betrayal, the culmination of seven years' work costing nearly $1m - and the best offering yet from a computer writing a story by itself.

The man in charge of the project, Dr Selmer Bringsjord, associate professor, specialist in logic, and director of the Mind-Machine Laboratory at the Rensselaer Institute in New York, began his attempt to build a silicon Hemingway, a computer that can write good fiction, seven years ago, and had set a target of doing so within 10 years.

For a computer to write a story, as opposed to one that juggles phrases given to it, the plot has to be converted into a mathematical formula. It took Dr Bringsjord and his team two years to render the concept of betrayal into mathematics.

"Brutus does understand nine varieties of betrayal and it has a account of self-deception and evil. We believe it is the most advanced autonomous story yet by a computer."

Despite the achievement by "Brutus 1", Dr Bringsjord says computers will never write good fiction. "Even though Brutus 1 is impressive, it seems pretty clear that computers will never match the best human storytellers in even a short story competition."

He says the key problem is that to write a good story, a computer needs not only to think swiftly and mechanically - as Deep Blue did in its chess victory over Gary Kasparov - it also needs subjective awareness.

"A person, for example, can think experimentally about a trip to Europe as a kid, remember what it was like to be in Paris on a sunny day with an older brother," Dr Bringsjord says. "Such an example, I believe, demands capabilities no machine will ever have."

Although a computer may never produce good fiction, he believes formula novels are within their scope. "There is clearly a difference between fiction and the formulated fiction produced by some authors," he says.

Perhaps the computer should ponder the opening of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness."