When I attended Zadie Smith’s lecture recently and she considered the question “why write?” she did not take into account computers writing books and poetry.

All those people doing NaNoWriMo this month can write their novels lickety-split and spend the rest of their time doing other things like loitering over coffee and looking bohemian and bragging about the just finished novel.

Ever heard of Professor Philip Parker? I hadn’t either. He has created software that has “written” over 200,000 books and currently has over 100,000 titles under his name on Amazon. The books take under an hour to “write.” The software he created compiles existing information about a topic and uses formulas to create predictive information for things like future market size and stuff like that. Parker is now experimenting with software that will write fiction. He thinks the software will work quite well particularly for genre books like romance and science fiction.

Parker did an experiment with his prototype software having a computer compose a sonnet. Then he did a survey, presenting people with the computer sonnet and a Shakespeare sonnet (neither labeled) and asked which poem they preferred. Shakespeare lost.

There has already been a successful book created by a computer. Titled True Love and “written” by Alexander Prokopovich, chief editor of the Russian publisher Astrel-SPb. The book is a variation of Anna Karenina written in the style of Haruki Murakami. It is based on 17 famous novels and took the computer 72 hours to compose.

Are you appalled and offended? Me too. Do you think you can tell the difference between a computer poem and a human poem? Go try it out. Scroll down a little bit and read the poems in the “Spot the Difference” box on the right of the article. See if you can figure it out without cheating. I did. Figured it out that is sans cheating. I’d tell you what my logic was but if I did, I would give away which poem is which.

I am horrified at the thought of computers writing books. But you know, it comes back round to one of the things Zadie Smith said in her lecture. When everyone is a writer these days, including computers, the way we must distinguish ourselves is through craftsmanship. Sure a computer can write a poem or a novel according to a formula and rules of grammar, but it will never be creative or innovative or insightful enough to write a truly new sentence, something so sparkling and gorgeous that we stop and read it again and again because of the pleasure it gives us. No, I don’t think a computer will ever be able to do that.

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