Experts predict that within 25 years, artificial intelligences will be writing novels.
Of course experts have, at times, predicted that vast cities will cover the seafloors and humanity’s technological prowess will usher in a Golden Age of peace and prosperity. Instead, we have plastic trash choking the life out of the seas, and a quick peek out the nearest window will utterly crush any hopes of a Golden Age, so maybe the experts need to polish their crystal balls or abandon them completely.
Still, we have available to us marvelous online language translators that can at least get the meaning of a short text across. Sure, it may not be a perfect translation, but it’s workable, right?
Well, let’s see.
I took one of my favorite openings and ran it through Google translate a few times, going from English to Croatian to Finnish and okay, I lost track of things then. Suffice it to say the text was translated back and forth half a dozen times.
Here’s the opening from my book Hold the Dark in the original English:
Rain fell like an ocean upended. A frigid ice-rimed polar ocean, full of ghostly white whales and blue-veined icebergs; I pulled my raincoat tight at my neck and put my chin down on my chest and offered up a pair of unkind words to the cold gushing sky.
Beyond my narrow trash-strewn alley, out on Regent Street, nothing moved. Or, more precisely, if it moved I couldn’t see it through the whipping sheets of rain. The lone pair of streetlamps had been extinguished by the storm an hour ago, and I’d been reduced to watching the three candlelit street-side windows of Innigot’s Alehouse to see if anyone walked in front of them.
No one had. The halfdead, the Curfew and the Watch combined can’t clear Rannit’s streets after dark, most nights. But let a spring storm blow in from the south and sprout a few tornados and suddenly everyone stays tucked in bed and indoors ’til sunrise.
“Nobody out here but ogres and Markhats,” I muttered.
Thunder grumbled distant reply. I pulled my hat down lower against the spray and the splash, jammed my hands deep in my pockets and pondered just going home. The man I was looking for could stroll past wearing a clown-suit and banging a drum, and I might see him, and I might not.
All you’re doing is getting wet, said a snide little voice in my head. Getting wet for nothing. Darla Tomas, she of the soft brown eyes and jet black hair and the quick easy smile, is laid out on a slab at the crematorium, dead or worse than dead. Martha Hoobin is still missing. And the best you can do, said the voice, is hide in this alley and drip with rain.
In my right-hand raincoat pocket, the huldra stirred, brushed my fingertips. I yanked my hand away, pulled it out of my pocket entirely when the huldra jerked as if to follow.
At that moment, a shape darted past the first of Innigot’s three windows. A single shadow, one hand holding down its hat, tall but hunkered down against the gale.
I froze. Sheets of rain twisted.
The shadow crossed in front of the second window. I started counting. Innigot’s door was between the second and third windows. If the silhouette passed before the third window, I’d merely seen a vampire or a lunatic or any other of a dozen unsavory types, heading for trouble out in the rain. But, if someone went into Innigot’s…
There, in the dark, a door-sized slice of weak yellow light appeared, widened, vanished.
“Got you,” I said. I watched the street for a moment longer. No one moved. No shadow crossed Innigot’s third window. No other shadows followed in his wake. My mystery man had taken the bait, braved the storm and made his entrance.
I stepped out of my hiding place against the alley wall. Rain beat down on me so hard the spray went in my mouth, and I tasted Rannit’s sky—sooty, bitter and foul. I spit it out, shut my mouth and started walking.
At the end of the alley, I stopped, reached into my right-hand raincoat pocket, and found the wax-sealed terrapin shell Mama called a huldra. It was warm in my hand, and it quivered, as if it were packed tight with angry hornets. Crumpled below it was Mama’s hex. I pulled the hex out, took it in both hands and ripped the paper in half.
The paper screamed a tiny scream as it tore.
Now Mama knew I’d found our tall thin man. I had promised Mama Hog I’d wait. I’d promised her I would tear the hex and watch Innigot’s and wait for the lads from the Narrows.
There’d be fifty or more of them, all armed, all ready to back me up when I faced down the man who’d killed Darla, taken Martha, taken who knew how many others. Fifty strong, silent Hoobins and Olafs and Benks and Rowheins. A vengeful, furious army, well fit for the night’s dark work.
I’d promised Mama I would wait. I’d promised Darla I would keep her safe.
Promises. Such fragile things.
I dropped Mama’s spent hex, let the whimpering scraps wash away spinning into a flooded rushing gutter.
I reached again into my pocket and closed my bare hand tight about the huldra and marched out into the empty street. The huldra shook, went hot in my hand. Mama had warned me never, ever to touch the thing with bare skin.
I gripped the huldra tighter, heard mad laughter in the sky.
“Martha Hoobin,” I said. “It’s time to come home.”
Below is what the same text looks like after being carefully parsed by Google’s translation engines:
The rain fell as the sea. The sea is full of drunken whales with green frost. I pulled my muscles into the neck, threw a tail on my chest and sent some bad words in the cold weather.
In addition to my past mistakes on Regent Street, nothing has changed. But if I change, I can not see the rain. The road was disturbed by waves a few hours ago, and I could not see the three lights in Al-Zawahin's Innigot house to see if anyone with toes was ahead of them.
No one. Half shadows and water can not be used along Rannit Road after the darkest night. But when the spring blows from the south, and the plants grow somewhere, they are all on beds and houses in the sun.
"There is no one here, but Ares and Markhats," I said.
Thunder is complaining in a quick response. I pulled the helmet under an explosion and broke it, and I shook the pigs and thought about going home. The person I was looking for could go askew and try to cut and pull puzzles and I saw him.
Everything you do is light and sounds like a little horn in my head. Fill it for no. Dallas, black eyes and black hair and video footage were placed on a floor in a prison that survived. Martha Hoobin is still missing. The best thing you can do is to speak a language in a storm and bother a trout.
In my bag, Holder woke up and my fingers broke. I took my hand and pulled it out of the bag all the time, and Huldra jumped as I walked.
Then there were three soiled windows. The shadow shakes its long hat but floats.
I'm cold. The leaves of the rain are changing.
Front shadow of another window. I started counting. Innigot counts from two to three windows. If the picture is in front of the third window, I find one of twenty-two guitarists or drunkards in the rain. On the other hand, if someone goes to Innigov ...
Dark in the dark is clear to the weak, the bad and the lost.
I said, "When you come." I'm looking for a short trip. Nobody moves. The shadow of the third window of Innigot does not appear. There is no wet shadow over his help. My hidden person was caught in a mouse, he encouraged waves and confessed.
I left my hideout on rocky mountains. The water hit me until the ashes poured into my mouth and tested the sky and the bad. As I write, I close my mouth and dance.
At the end of the betting, I stopped and entered the bag, and the boss found his mother full, calling her a prostitute. It was warm in my hand, and it ended as if it was covered with horror. The icon below is hexadecimal. I broke the hexadecimal, kissed both my hands, poked half the paper.
Paper asked for a little shouting when he was broken.
Now, Mom, I know I found a permanent man. I promised Morocco I would wait. I talked to her when I rented a rectangle and looked at Innigot and waited for the children from Narrows.
At least fifty or more, carrying a weapon, could return me when the man who killed him took me, took it and brought her to market. Fifty-five, Hoobins, Olafs, and Peninsula and Hauer live. The army is angry and angry at night.
I talked to my mom when I was waiting. I talked to Dallei and kept it safe.
Of. Simple things.
When I put my mom on a hexagometer, the engine wheel was a dragon washed.
When I returned to my suitcase, I held my hand and went in the wrong direction. Hula was washed and walked in my arms. Mom warned me she was not skinny.
When I took Huldra, I heard how laughing in the sky.
I said, "Martha Hinkin." It's time to get back. "
I’m sure some might argue that the latter text is the most entertaining. I admit I fell instantly in love with two phrases — ‘If the picture is in front of the third window, I find one of twenty-two guitarists or drunkards in the rain,’ and ‘I talked to her when I rented a rectangle ‘ suggest some deep world-building is taking place. Why are there only twenty-two guitarists out wandering in the rain? How much does one pay to rent a rectangle?
These are provocative questions that will plunge the reader deeper into the story. Thanks, Google. That’s a trick I’m going to use.
So am I worried that AIs will soon take over the business of writing?
Yes I am. Not because they’ll be particularly good at it, but because publishers won’t need to pay them. And the AI authors won’t need to be that good, really — when they can draw from the great plots, steal the best story arcs, recreate the great characters of literature and do it all in a few microseconds, for free.
When that technology is perfected, Amazon’s bookshelves will be flooded with the works of #ChroBOTaa5 and //NEMPA77g.
Certainly, refinements are required. But that’s just a matter of tweaking and time.
So enjoy the myriad of flawed human works while you can. Couple the relentless precision of machines with the psychologically addictive algorithms already being used by game designers, and I predict a future filled with ‘books’ that you, quite literally, can’t put down.
For more fun with Google Translate, please check out this brilliant series of videos called ‘Google Translate Sings. Here’s an example…
Google Translate Sings ‘This is Halloween.’