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"Could robots ever be trusted to write original novels, histories, scientific papers and sonnets?"
October 16, 2011 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Do Androids Dream of Electric Authors? [] "So who was Lambert M. Surhone? Just looking at the numbers, you could argue that he’s one of the most prolific creators of literature who ever lived. But was he even human? There are now software programs — robots, if you will — that can gather text and organize it into a book. Surhone might be one of them."
posted by Fizz (23 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

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posted by Not Supplied at 6:58 AM on October 16, 2011

The books aren't really written by computers, they're based on wiki articles which are written by people.
posted by empath at 7:03 AM on October 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

can you even imagine how ruthlessly someone would be mocked if they started using 'pagan' as a first name today
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:11 AM on October 16, 2011

The world of robot-books is fascinating all by itself. That Lambert M. Surhone is such a Dickian name is just icing on the cake.
posted by byanyothername at 7:21 AM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

But how could we have allowed them to commandeer one of the most gratifying occupations, that of author?

You'd think a body writing puff pieces like this for the Times would have a better sense of how monotonous non-fiction writing can be. I say this as a former tech writer. Some of the writing I did was fascinating, but honestly, it was mostly the research. Researching through wikipedia and rewriting/editing what I found there for paper publication sounds deadly dull to me.
posted by immlass at 7:40 AM on October 16, 2011

Siri, write me a book about horses. Publish it on
posted by seanyboy at 8:00 AM on October 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

"Could robots ever be trusted to write original novels, histories, scientific papers and sonnets?"

It's interesting that it's framed as a question of trust. Foundational criticism of, like, 60 years ago was intended to disabuse people of the notion that human beings could be "trusted" as the authors of novels, histories, etc. The more compelling question to me is the next one the author asks -- whether people will ever want to read them.

The answer, of course, is both yes and n/a; the robots will be getting better and better, and their ability to parse and compile natural language will improve. People will want to read what they write. But even if the reader has some moral aversion to reading computer-generated text, as computer generation gets more sophisticated it will be harder to distinguish at all. People will want to read robot books (technically, still, only compiled by robots) and will also have no choice.
posted by penduluum at 8:01 AM on October 16, 2011

I'll post a more coherent response later, but all I can think of is the Narrator from The Difference Engine.

posted by strixus at 8:04 AM on October 16, 2011

Philip M. Parker has published over 200,000
posted by stbalbach at 8:13 AM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

So they find anything with enough Wiki entries and free web content devoted to it and then compile that into a "book" hoping someone stumbles upon it and orders it? Who's going to be the MeFite to get their own book from Lambert M. Surhone? It has to happen sooner or later, right?
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:01 AM on October 16, 2011

As weird as these books are, fifty years from now there will a group of enthusiasts trying to complete their Lambert M. Surhone collection. Although I guess they don't have to worry paying higher prices for autographed copies or first editions.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:09 AM on October 16, 2011

From the article:

Inside was the Pagan Kennedy Wikipedia entry, and then a random collection of wiki-text tenuously connected to my path through life. (About a quarter of the book is devoted to Dartmouth College, where I worked as a visiting writer a few years ago.)

I think it's a bit shady the way Amazon lets this company sell all these garbage books which in many cases have scarcely anything to do with the supposed subject matter. A lot of content is only tangentially related, if at all, to the book titles, due to the practice of filling out the books with Wikipedia articles hyperlinked from the original articles. The average Wikipedia entry is not long enough to fill a book, and charging such high prices for such tiny amounts of content is pretty fradulent, in my opinion, particularly the books aren't even edited by humans, which it doesn't look like they are.

Here's part of an Amazon review of one "Surhone"-edited book, Oracle Coherence:

"This book is a complete con. The title is Oracle Coherence which leads you to believe that there is useful information here about Coherence. In fact this is a collection of no doubt interesting Wikipaedia articles about some computing topics but Coherence is hardly mentioned."

I think Amazon is complicit in this obnoxious fraud by stocking the books.
posted by rubber duck at 9:19 AM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

What, if anything, does Wikipedia have to say about this? Or the licenses under which Wikipedia is distributed?
posted by madcaptenor at 9:27 AM on October 16, 2011

So how long before Lambert M. Surhone writes a book about The Great Automatic Grammatizator or Trurl's Electronic Bard?
posted by rmxwl at 10:54 AM on October 16, 2011

I don't know Sirhone, but I hear his beard is half constructed.
posted by miyabo at 11:03 AM on October 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Funnily enough, Private Eye covered VDM and this Amazon scam in last week's issue. Kudos to the NYT if, like everyone else in Anglo journalism, they are starting to steal ideas from Private Eye!
posted by chavenet at 12:14 PM on October 16, 2011

From what I know about androids, they can write poetry but it's mostly a clever recitation of facts set to meter.

The books in the article make me think they've just re-purposed their spam-bots to produce long-form works.

Think of farmers in Malawi who lack the most basic guides to agriculture in their own language.

With all the talk about high unemployment it makes me sad that this is presented like "Ohh if only we had some translator-bots!" Give humans some credit.
posted by bleep at 1:42 PM on October 16, 2011

You can order prints of Wikipedia articles from Wikipedia.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:10 PM on October 16, 2011

Their mistake is calling themselves VDM. If they were named SocialAuthr, or Crowdxpert, or something like that, they have a few million in funding and be on the front page of Techcrunch.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 2:58 PM on October 16, 2011

We need to get the bots to plagiarize some Harlan Ellison stories.
posted by benzenedream at 3:29 PM on October 16, 2011

What, if anything, does Wikipedia have to say about this? Or the licenses under which Wikipedia is distributed?

Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA, which means that this is a permitted use so long as the content is properly attributed to Wikipedia (which it sounds like it probably is, inasmuch as the books have “high-quality content by Wikipedia articles!” on the cover) and the derivative work is also distributed under a comparable license. The latter means that if for some reason you wanted to digitize a bunch of Lambert M. Surhone books and distribute them on BitTorrent, VDM would have no grounds to stop you, but I doubt they're losing much sleep over that eventuality given that their business model seems to depend on people buying the things by mistake anyway.

This is hardly the only way that people monetize Wikipedia content simply by relying on other people's carelessness, after all: there are dozens of different websites that are basically just a mirror of Wikipedia with no attempt at a value-add, and a bunch of ads slapped on top. Wikimedia doesn't make any attempt to stop those either, nor would their license permit them to.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 4:08 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is more of a recent development in publishing scams, which are covered with some regularity at Making Light. The non-books by non-authors on Amazon appeared earlier as medical works, god help the patients.
posted by bad grammar at 4:20 PM on October 16, 2011

The 2007-2012 Outlook for Lemon-Flavored Bottled Water in Japan.

Note the price.

It might theoretically be useful to someone pursuing this niche market without access to big business/marketing databases or command of Japanese, but I suspect the two favorable reviews are bogus.
posted by bad grammar at 4:47 PM on October 18, 2011

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