For the past few months I’ve been seeing stories about software being used by Forbes and others to write news reports. It seems some of what we read in the news media is already being produced by automated systems. The people behind this software predict 90% of all news reports will be automated in 15 years. Consider the following from Wired Magazine:
Every 30 seconds or so, the algorithmic bull pen of Narrative Science, a 30-person company occupying a large room on the fringes of the Chicago Loop, extrudes a story whose very byline is a question of philosophical inquiry. The computer-written product could be a pennant-waving second-half update of a Big Ten basketball contest, a sober preview of a corporate earnings statement, or a blithe summary of the presidential horse race drawn from Twitter posts. The articles run on the websites of respected publishers like Forbes, as well as other Internet media powers (many of which are keeping their identities private). Niche news services hire Narrative Science to write updates for their subscribers, be they sports fans, small-cap investors, or fast-food franchise owner.
That got me thinking about artificial intelligence, and art. Could a novel be written by a computer?
The creators of the news writing software say it only works for stories that are mainly dependent on data (sporting events, financial reporting, etc.). Some novels are formulaic, in the sense that one could overlay the same basic outline on multiple plots. Much of the romance fiction genre, for example, and many “whodunit” style murder mysteries, tend to follow the same basic format, and in a larger sense one could say there are many “rules” which apply to almost every kind of novel. But I think it’s safe to say that the quality of a novel is inversely proportional to the possibility that it can be defined or predicted by an algorithm. To put it more simply, any novel we could automate would be a bad novel.
There’s something achieved by all good art that transcends systemization. In fact, the quality of transcendence is one of the reasons why art matters. And there’s irony in the fact that the transcendent meaning and importance of any great novel is impossible to convey with words. One can’t isolate any sentence, paragraph or chapter of a great novel and say, “That right there is the reason it’s great.” One must experience the work as a whole in order to experience the value of the work, and even then it’s not merely the complete collection of the words which makes a novel great, but rather, it’s the experience of the work. The greatness in a novel is not found in the logic that organizes the words within the novel, and therefore whatever causes that greatness is something no machine can reproduce.
This is true in art, and it matters in art, because it is true, and it matters, in us.
Francis Schaeffer wrote in Art and the Bible: Two Essays, “He may have no gift of writing, no gift of composing or singing, but each man has the gift of creativity in terms of the way he lives his life. In this sense, the Christian’s life is to be an art work.” And this, it seems to me, is something to be considered both in the sense Schaeffer meant it (in terms of what we do), and in another sense (in terms of what we are, or ought to be).
Over at Don’t Eat The Fruit, John Dyer recently posted some good thoughts on the relationship between our minds and our bodies. Since the dawn of history, people have tended toward unnatural divisions between the two. And with the advances in technology we’ve seen over the last few decades, it seems possible that we might one day manage to completely divide one part of ourselves from another, either by implanting a human brain in a machine, or by totally controlling a human body with a microchip.
Some believe this would be a good thing. After all, it would eliminate our susceptibility to many flaws, just as novels written by computers would contain no misspelled words. But I think they’re in for a shock.
We were created with interconnected minds and bodies in order that the thing we call our “soul” or “spirit” might be fully expressed. (By “soul” or “spirit” I mean the thing that makes me “me,” the thing that you would know if you knew me, and yet the thing that you will never see while I’m alive, and could never find if you cut my brain and body open and looked inside.) Again, the most important qualities of great novels can only be experienced in the total combination of the words, yet those same qualities are impossible to contain in words. In almost exactly the same way, when you know “me,” you know something that can only be expressed by the seamless combination of my mind and body, yet I cannot be found within either my mind or my body. So any attempt to separate the mind and body, to view either one as somehow better or more desirable than the other, or to indulge one while ignoring the other, is nothing less than an attack on the human spirit.
It’s possible that one day soon we will read technically flawless novels written by computers, but we will never read good novels written in that way. There is no transcendental “me” in a machine, and even if there were it would not be human, therefore no machine could produce a good work of art. Art is only good when it reminds us what it’s like to be completely human, in body, mind and soul.