In a new novel, “The Death of an Author,” writer Aidan Marchine describes a mediocre plate of nachos this way:
“The cheese was frozen and the chips soggy, wet and smeared with a greasy film like some kind of lake scum. Gus forced himself to take a bite, but the taste was rancid, a sickly sweet imitation of cheese. He washed it down with a drink of beer, but even that tasted ugly, as if he had been sitting in the sun for too long.”
The writing is vivid, but there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. Aidan Marchine, however, is an unusual author, at least for now, because Aidan Marchine is a set of computer systems. A bit.
Journalist and author Stephen Marche wrote “Death of an Author” using three artificial intelligence programs. Or three artificial intelligence programs wrote it with an extensive plot and prompts from Stephen Marche. It depends on how you look at it.
“I am the creator of this work, 100 percent,” Marche said, “but on the other hand, I did not create the words.”
Pushkin Industries, an audio production company, will publish the novel as an audiobook and e-book next month. Even the Marche nickname is a program invention, a combination of Marche and machine.
A new generation of chatbots
A brave new world. A new crop of AI-powered chatbots has kicked off a fight to determine if the technology could change the internet economy, turning current powerhouses into past ones and creating the next industry giants. Here are the bots to know:
In January, Jacob Weisberg, Pushkin’s chief executive, approached Marche, who has been writing with and about artificial intelligence since 2017. He asked if Marche was interested in using the technology to produce a murder mystery. The result of that collaboration is “Death of the Author,” in which an author who uses AI extensively ends up dead.
Police novel? Was the daughter separated from her? Was it the crime and cyberfiction professor who was an expert in her work? Was it the eccentric billionaire who worked with her on a secret artificial intelligence project?
To get the history from his laptop, Marche used three programs, starting with ChatGPT. He ran a plot summary through the software, along with numerous prompts and notes. While the AI was good at many things, especially dialogue, he said, his plots were terrible.
Next, he used Sudowrite, asking the program to make a sentence longer or shorter, adopt a more conversational tone, or make the writing sound like Ernest Hemingway’s. He then used Cohere to create what he called the best lines in the book. If he wanted to describe the smell of coffee, he would train the program on examples and then ask it to generate similes until he found one he liked.
“For me, the process was a bit like hip-hop,” he said. “If you’re doing hip-hop, you don’t necessarily know how to play the drums, but you definitely need to know how the beats work, how the hooks work, and you need to be able to tie them together in a meaningful way.”
Marche said these programs could be a tool for writers and was optimistic about the growth of algorithmic writing in his field. But the prospect makes many writers and their managers extremely nervous, worried that machines will put writers out of work. The Authors Guild has order “legal and policy interventions that balance the development of useful AI tools with the protection of human authorship.”
Weisberg, Pushkin’s chief executive, said that while the new tools often displaced people, they also created opportunities. Take journalism, for example.
“If routine news is written or generated by technology,” he said, “you as a journalist, instead of reporting on every fire, you can write interesting AI news.”
Marche and Pushkin tried to use software to create as much of “The Death of an Author” as possible, including the blurb and cover notes. But there was one area where its creators felt the technology was lacking: audiobook narration. So they hired a human, Edoardo Ballerini, who has won several awards in the field.
“But this is moving very fast,” Weisberg said. “If we were doing it now instead of six weeks ago, I think we could get an AI storytelling that would measure up.”