digilitSomeday will robots be able to collaborate with novelists and otherwise be literary, with or without tweed jackets?

Writer-artist Jamie Bridle opines in the Guardian.

He also gives his take on what he calls “the first short story award for algorithms,” and HuffPo weighs in as well about robots and fiction.

Unlike HuffPo’s Claire Fallon, Bridle eagerly looks ahead to human-machine collaborations. Yes, as I see it, that can be possible in the area of nonfiction. Theoretically bots could even help me write TeleRead posts, not just optimize site design via a service such as Ezoic’s. That said, I’ve got mixed feelings about bot collaborators, especially for fiction. The big issue isn’t just whether bots can write convincing irony, rather problematic at this point anyway. It’s whether they’ll even want irony. Suppose robots and cyborgs are the main audience in the future for fiction.

Don’t laugh. Even now, if you work for a Web site, you may no longer write headlines and leads for humans. A bean-counter somewhere might be leaning on you and your editors to write more for Google—for search engine optimization. Here at the TeleRead, we can use a plugin called Yoast. Can. I truly hate it. Yoast wants you to take a word in the headline and then repeat it in the body of your post and in summaries. The goal is “focus” for Google and the like.

Now add in another negative, the tendency to use cliched expressions to grab Google’s attention based on popular “keywords.” And on top of that, I’ve got the weird notion that all the time spent pleasing Yoast is time that TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows and I and our staffers could better devote to accommodating human readers.

On the positive, the best SEO apps can let you serve up one version of your headline for machines and another for humans. But I’m grumpy just the same.

More or less ignoring Yoast and related WordPress forms, Chris himself devotes minimal time to, say, tagging; he focuses on the writing instead. His TeleRead traffic statistics over the years have vindicated him.

I myself have issued an edict to TeleRead contributors: Worry most of all about human readers. Yoast sucks away a lot of the joy of creativity..

Longer term, I worry that in the future writer, human novelists will have to heed robotic overlords. Services already exist to analyze writing, on issues ranging from sentence and paragraph lengths to resemblance to other authors’ prose. Right now the bots are after the fact. But in the future will publishers insist that we evaluate ourselves, Yoast fashion, before we wind down our novels.

Go on like this, placate the damn bots, just let pure humans fade away on. We’ll all eventually be cyborgs anyway, right—human-bot hybrids? I can’t help but wonder how silicon brain implants will affect our literacy tastes, as both creators and consumers of fiction.

Excerpt from the Web page on the short story competition for bots: "DigiLit is a competition that encourages the creation of algorithms able to produce a ‘human-level’ short story of the kind that might be intended for a short story collection produced in a well-regarded MfA program or a piece for The New Yorker. The prize seeks to reward algorithms that could, for example, write stories for a creative writing class in which students are asked to submit a new short story each day."

So, TeleReaders, just what does this tell you about "well-regarded" MfA programs and the New Yorker, if robots can anticipate their needs? For the sake of our general serenity and comfort level in particular with the current lit scene, let’s root against all the bots.

Image credit and more on the short story contest: Artwork by Annelise Capo. She created it for the contest, run out of Dartmouth College. Judges will be anounced next month, and March 15, 2016, is the deadline for entries. I do see one inherent weakness in the Dartmouth contest, as perceived by bots and cyborgs in the future. Are pure humans the best beings to pass judgment on algorithms. Might bot and cyborg peers be better?

Related: RoboFi as a dystopian literacy genre: Jobs vs. robots. Neologism time?


  1. We have long loved and feared robots. Asimov’s three laws of robotics notwithstanding, we want their services but fear that the role of slave will become as repugnant to them as it is to ourselves. What happens then?
    There are already numerous online services that will examine one’s work in much the same way as an editor would and for free. Perhaps this is how they will seduce us into dependency and then take over. Online editors as a fifth column force. Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of editor robots – or human editors for that matter.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.