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The computer that would be Tolstoy

Just the other day we read about a novel composed by a computer. The author, named Melpmene, after the muse of tragedy, was described for dust-jacket purposes as "a digital computer operating on the Base Z (binary system), using 27 verb patterns and 5,000 'systematic semantic units."

There was no mention of Melpomene ever fighting in a war, working as a lumberjack, or indulging in any of those picaresque experiences that are presumed to supply young novelists with material. Instead Melpomene had been programmed with the works of D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, "some 20th-century women writers," and "several of the 'angry young men' of the 1960s." To these exotic elements were added a dash of Pidgin English and a soupconm of French.

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If all this, plus a confused childhood, doesn't put Melpomene in the running for the Great Computer Novel, we have not output at all on the word genius.

The short title of the novel is "Bagabone," after one of the characters. The plot, "concerns the lives of American, British, and French expatriates in the south Pacific, as they struggle with both external and internal problems." (From this summary we suspect that a little conrad or Maugham has been smuggled into the memory bank too, but literary influences are always anybody's guess.)

Melpomene is said to have taken almost ten years to write 136 pages, which suggests writer's block of hightech proportions. Melpomene received "some editing" -- don't we all? But undoubtedly she took it better than the rest of us, and furthermore, she demanded no advance.

The handwriting is on the wall. Or rather, the handwriting is notm on the wall, the word-processing is on the screen. In the dark hours of the night we fantasize a whole subculture of Melpomenes: computers a little dreamier than the rest that like to work around 3 a.m., sort of off in the corner. When they really get humming, they give off these funny trembles that may be taken for deep feelings. Boy, do those green screens ever light up as they never lit up before! Writing is one part inspiration, nine parts Base Z, we always say.

As if the robot-writer were not nightmare enough, those of us who earn a living by arranging (and rearranging) words -- and oh my, why won't they come out right? -- have been haunted by another dread scenario. This is known as the threat of the Shakespearean ape. It takes two forms. There is the mathematician's law of probability that supposes if X number of apes pounded away at X number of typewriters for X number of hours, they would tap out all the letters in "Hamlet." Or "A Midsummer Night's Dream," if you prefer. This random-pawing theory of literature does not really frighten your average author, who has been random-pawing his typewriter for years without even managing to produce "Troilus and Cressida."

But the other hypothesis is a little more manacing. It supposes that apes can be taught to recognize and "speak" as many as 400 units of sign language. We don't know about other writers. But we rate the competition of a Base Z computer with 27 verbs as nothing compared to an ape with 400 signs -- and an eye for all the bananas he could buy from the sale of movie and paperback rights. And when, not too long ago, experimenters like Duane Rumbaugh and Susan Savage-Rumbaugh of Georgia State University set chimpanzees down to a console, pressing "sign" keys, we really started to shake. The ape plus the computer. How could a p

Then Herbert Terrace, A Columbia University psychologist, with the help of a chimpanzee he named Nim Chimpsky, decided to prove Noam Chomsky, the noted MIT linguist, forever mistaken. Mr. Chomsky has maintained that language is unique to mankind.

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Showdown! We were on the edge of our typing chair, we can tell you. As of the moment, the results read, score one for the scribblers. Contrary to his expectations, Professor Terrace had to flunk Nim in Creative Writing I -- or any other kind of communications. Apes, he concluded, seldom initiate a "conversation;" and a lot of that smooth sigh-talk is in the eye of the human beholder, eager to read a message into what may be only an introspective scratch.

Ever since Gutenberg phased out all those monks with their red, blue, and gilt ink and a lifetime supply of quills, nothing has ever been quite the same in the cottage industry of words. Still, it is one thing to lose your job to a machine, and quite another to lose it to a monkey. What a relief to dispose for now of the Shakespearean ape! If we can only shut up those glib dolphins, we may make it yet.


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