Making of a story by using Artificial Intelligence technology

Oct 28, 2018, 07:27 IST | Jane Borges

What does a Sherlock Holmes tale written by your computer read like? We use an AI author to find out

Making of a story by using Artificial Intelligence technology
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It's no longer unusual to have Artificial Intelligence technology respond for you: remember that time when you received an email from your boss and even before you could key in a reply, a series of predictive texts popped up on screen? There's "noted," "sure," "i'll be there," and the most common, "thank you for your mail." "Smart computer," we think. Well, not too far behind is the day when full-length novels written by computers will also be the norm, say AI experts. Only two weeks ago, researchers at Facebook developed an AI that wrote a story on alien abduction. Closer home, a 300-page English book written by Calicut-based author Srinivas Mahankali, comprising one lakh words, was translated into Mandarin in flat 30 seconds by an AI bot, and that, too, "with 95 per cent accuracy". The recent developments aside, we reached out to tech experts to offer us a crash course on AI-generated literature and most importantly, equip our own machines to write one.

How it works
Back in 2016, software professionals Myles O'Neill and Anthony Voutas along with their friends from San Francisco, launched Literai.com — a site that hosts tutorials to make artificial fiction accessible to all. "The idea was to get the home computer create a software that generates an AI, which can write stories," says O'Neill in a telephonic chat. Here, the AI is fed with a specific data set — usually material worth 100 books — and it uses this data to string sentences together. "The whole system is based on seeing and picking up patterns that sometimes even human beings don't notice. So, the AI could take very specific text from the data it is fed with, or certain characters from these books and put it all together to create stories, often with good grammar and accurate spellings," adds O'Neill. But, because it's a machine that's at work, what you get for a story is a "big mix of randomness," says Voutas. "It also depends on the kind of books you put into this data set." For instance, when you combine cookbooks with JK Rowling's novels in a data set, it could throw amusing results, he adds.

Myles O'Neill
Myles O'Neill

As an experiment, we attempted to get our own computer pen fiction based on the tutorial on Literai's website The tutorial offers a step-by-step guide on training the AI to write a story. However, for someone who isn't tech savvy, the experience can be daunting. For starters, one is expected to download Docker — a tool designed to make it easier to create, deploy, and run applications on the computer. The next step involves downloading a model, which is simply a premade AI. We chose the Sherlock Holmes model, which had stories like A Scandal in Bohemia and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle among others, in its data set — you can also customise your own AI, by feeding it novels or stories of your choice. Once you copy the model into a docker container (the website explains at length how this is done), and paste the command as mentioned in the tutorial, a story comes together.

We got a 500-word passage, which as warned by the Literai founders, was a lesson in gibberish: "What are you no doubt that I can have been made on the back of the day, and it seemed from the trap with a good solution and a carriage displayed in the papers which my still behind him. And I will like that I expected, Mr Holmes. Oh, for the colonel seen to some ashise and took the ejection that the course of let us before down the parted man, and I am think that the inspector was the road." Your guess about what this passage means, is as good as ours. We wonder if training our own AI would have yielded better results. Incidentally, another AI writer, Shelley — launched by researchers at the MIT Media Lab in October last year on Twitter — is supposed to be more coherent in form and structure. What sets it apart is that it pens stories in collaboration with human beings. "After she starts a new story [every hour] on Twitter, she invites people to collaborate with her. Based on the popularity of the story, she then prompts back and continues the story by taking into account all the content created so far," says Pinar Yanardag, a postdoctoral associate at MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts, in an email interview. We tweeted to Shelley, but are yet to hear from it.

The road ahead
Though use of AI in literature is still at a nascent stage, Björn Schuller, professor of Artificial Intelligence at Imperial College London, UK, doesn't rule out that it's going to play a larger role in the kind of literature we consume in the near future. "AI could support human literature writers by suggesting different story turns or styles, or by helping write a story based on conditioning input, such as giving some historical data and figures plus character descriptions to craft a story around," he says. "I would assume that consumers would still want to see human authors involved." But AI, he says, could definitely write stories much faster, and perhaps accelerate the story market. A case in point is Mahankali's book, Blockchain: The Untold Story, which he says was translated by a bot in China in less than a minute and later fine-tuned by writers over the course of a week, before it was showcased at the Frankfurt Book Fair recently. "At some point, AI author celebrities could emerge," Schuller believes.

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