Ever since the term “robot” was coined in 1920 (popularized by Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R. — Rossum’s Universal Robots), someone’s been worried about robots taking over their jobs. A few years ago, there were some National Public Radio (US) stories about programs that could write news stories. (One here: https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/05/20/406484294/an-npr-reporter-raced-a-machine-to-write-a-news-story-who-won.)
I’ve read a few of these stories – honestly, there are only so many ways to report the weather on 90 percent of the days. Or to report on the stock market. In the vast majority of cases, you can randomly select a template, and plug in the numbers and adjectives for that day, and you have readable information.
Some artificially generated fiction can be strangely moving and seemingly full of thought. That’s because the reader is expected to do some of the work in fiction – she searches her brain for the source of allusions, or makes the connections that make the subtext clear. Is there so much difference between certain types of highly experimental fiction and vague robotic meanderings? As far as satisfaction goes, I think they both can deliver. Not every piece, of course. It’s Sturgeon’s Law that 90 percent of any genre is dreck. I think that goes for non-human writing, as well. Computers, over the short term, generally do better than an infinite number of monkeys plonking away on typewriters.
However, the inputs still matter. Today on Twitter, Janelle Shane shared some of her results from a neural net.
This is for a Savory White Curry. Shane writes, “One thing the neural net has learned from humans is that it’s good to include a story with your recipe.
“It is bad at this.”
That said, the “story” is funny and engaging. “The White Savory Curry will satisfy whippersnappers, carnivores and even a pet rabbit.” Lies, of course. The recipe itself is horrifying, including mustard, bacon, chopped onion and 12 whole peaches (half pitted and sliced, half only sliced). “My dad would pack the squirt guns into the bottom of the old soup can.” Good ol’ Dad.
Janelle Shane was chosen as one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people of 2019, and has a science blog called AIWeirdness. You can read the whole thread about her AI neural net experiment with Jello recipes here: https://twitter.com/JanelleCShane/status/1225826027475128321. Don’t miss recipes like “Eels in Silence” and the recipe that calls for small bull testicles (the bull or the testicles?) but doesn’t actually use them in the making of the thing.
And just to add some extra poignancy, have you ever written a recipe? How did that go?
I remember one Easter, we were several column inches short of material for the Arts and Entertainments section that I was editing for the school newspaper, so I wrote down a few recipes for hard-boiled egg leftovers. I was still a tiny bit short, and our deadline was looming, so in desperation, I invented a recipe for Easter Egg Chili. I sent it off to be printed, and laughed for a solid five minutes, which was very worrying to some of my co-conspirators, er, co-workers. The idea of anyone actually using that recipe, and then farting all through the week after Easter . . . possibly one of the worst things I’ve ever done as a writer. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to have a robot write my extra inches . . . .