The Current

Can an algorithm make science fiction better? Author Stephen Marche finds out

Author Stephen Marche decided to write science fiction with an unlikely co-author: an algorithm. The finished product complete with footnotes explains on how the algorithm helped craft the story.
Can robots write better than humans? Author Stephen Marche wrote a short story with an unlikely co-author: an algorithm, to test the theory. (pixabay.com)
Listen26:59

Read Segment Transcript

When Toronto author Stephen Marche set out to write his short story Twinkle Twinkle, he wanted it to be every bit as good as those written by his favourite sci-fi writers. 

So, in an experiment designed to test the limits of computer ability to comprehend and create art, Marche enlisted the help of an algorithm. 

"In a sense it's trying to automate the process of influence," he said in an interview with The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti. 

Working with two researchers at the University of Toronto, Marche selected 50 of his favourite science fiction short stories (the list of works was proprietary, he said, but he included sci-fi heavy hitters like Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury). Drawing from those stories, the algorithm generated a set of rules of style and form that Marche had to follow. 

It had to be set on a planet other than Earth. It could not involve space travel. But there also had to be a scene at a farm.- Stephen Marche on the seemingly contradictory rules that the algorithm generated
"The real problem was, they seemed at first totally contradictory," Marche said of the rules. 
Stephen Marche says he likes the story that he wrote with an algorithm because he feels it's not like anything he would write. (Stephen Marche)

"It had to be set on a planet other than Earth. It could not involve space travel. But there also had to be a scene at a farm."

Marche's solution to this puzzle was an innovative premise: the protagonist, Anne, works for a government agency dedicated to observing and recording the activity of the inhabitants of an Earth-like planet 1,564 light-years away. 

But was the story, published by Wired along with Marche's footnotes, any good? The Current reached out to a human sci-fi editor to find out. 

"I probably would have sent it back for notes," said Sandra Kasturi, publisher and co-owner of the sci-fi publishing house Chi-Zine Publications. 

"I loved the idea of the story," she added. "If I hadn't known that there was an algorithm involved, I don't know that I would have necessarily have known that." 

Marche, however, is not the first science fiction author to turn to a computer program to aid the writing process. 

Daniel H. Wilson, a sci-fi author and artificial intelligence and robotics expert, told Tremonti he wrote his own algorithm to go through his manuscripts and highlight repetitive themes and patterns in his writing that he might not notice on his own. 

"My wife will read my stuff and she'll say, 'If you mention her raven hair one more time...'," he joked. 

But while algorithms can be useful tools in the artistic process, Wilson said he didn't necessarily think robots will ever be able to create art more meaningful than humans, because humans have one thing that no robot ever will: the experience of living a human life. 

He pointed to posts on social media as an example. 

"You look at all of these Twitter posts and all of these Facebook posts, the billions of these things that are pouring out every day  and the only thing that makes them worthwhile is that a human being experienced those things and then wrote about them," he said. 

"If you automated that and had machines do it, it would just be meaningless."


This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli and Karin Marley.