If Dan Brown can write, so can robots

The Hoshi prize, the Japanese science fiction award set up last year to honour one of Japan’s major science fiction writers, Shinichi Hoshi, hopes that next year’s competition will see stories created by artificial intelligences (AIs) going up against those written by humans, with judges to be unaware of who – or what – wrote an entry until the winner is chosen.

Hoshi’s daughter, Marina Hoshi Whyte, said that, alongside human competitors, the prize would accept entries from computers as well as “from other nonhumans, such as space aliens and animals, as long as they are written in Japanese”. “It is sort of a joke, but for real,” she said. “I wanted the award/competition itself to be science fiction. After all, if it can’t expand the imagination of the general public, what’s the point of having a sci-fi competition?”

Hoshi Whyte is particularly hoping that next year’s prize will include a submission from a group of Japanese scientists headed by Hitoshi Matsubara, a professor at Future University-Hakodate in Hokkaido. She said Matsubara and his team had been working with the hundreds of short stories written by Hoshi himself since September 2012, as well as Hoshi’s essays on how to write short stories, attempting to use the author’s rules to help artificial intelligence to create its own fiction.

“Hoshi’s stories are very simple, usually containing just one idea that gives you a twisted, surprise ending. They believe this is the first step toward making story-writing AI that can eventually write long and complicated stories,” the author’s daughter said. “When we were starting this competition in 2013, I wanted this AI project to some day enter its stories, which you can say is an extension of my father’s [vision]. There’s a chance that other scientists are working on similar projects and, of course, I want them to enter too.”

‘The Whimsical Robot’
Hoshi died in 1997, leaving behind more than 1 000 very short stories. He won a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan lifetime achievement award, and an obituary in the Independent noted that he “excelled in parodies of human behaviour and acerbic portraits of common Japanese types in outer-space settings”. His collection The Whimsical Robot, the title story of which brings a wry twist to the story of a man who buys a robot to help him out at home, has sold millions of copies in Japan. The Hoshi award’s first winner was a human named Shinichi Endo, who took the prize with a story written in a form of a science article by three advanced AIs in the year 2064.

“Dr Matsubara said from the very beginning that it would take about five years for his AI to write a decent story,” Hoshi Whyte said. “The next deadline [autumn 2015] is still only three years from the conception of the project. So I know that next year’s story would be very primitive and wouldn’t even be close to winning. But that’s OK. I think it’s still good that the public follows the progress of the project this way, like watching a baby grow up.”

‘Humans have a magical spark’
Science fiction novelist and academic Adam Roberts said that his initial reaction to the news was “but that’s bonkers”, because “computers can do lots of clever things, but surely they are purely reactive machines, determined by what other people program into them. They don’t have creative capacity. But then I thought again.” Roberts himself has just completed Get Started in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy for a self-help series.

“And what I found myself doing was laying down a set of programme-like rubrics and strategies and rules for would-be genre-writers to follow. Now I would like to hope that they were organically framed, and one of the rules is not to follow rules rigidly and so on – but still: books like that (and there are loads of them) sell on the basis that actually it is possible to draw up a complex flowchart that, if you follow it and work hard, will spit out a new novel at the end of it,” said Roberts.

“So maybe there’s more to it than we like to think. Maybe we flatter ourselves that humans have a magical spark. It’s often not like that. Bernard Cornwell started writing by reading hundreds of novels, noting down what they did, and copying that mechanically, and he’s been hugely successful. Do we need a human being to write Dan Brown novels? Might a computer even do a better job than a human there?” 

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Alison Flood
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