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The Computers Are Getting Better at Writing

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” has a famous opening: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” The rest of the story follows, logically and ludicrously, from that original degrading miracle. Gregor struggles to get out of bed. His mother tells him that it’s time to go to work. His boss, the chief clerk, shows up and demands that he return to the business no matter what shape he’s in. He cannot. Finally, his father, in a fit of furious disgust, tries to beat the vermin-Gregor back into his room. His insect body gets stuck halfway through the door until “his father gave him a hefty shove from behind which released him from where he was held and sent him flying, and heavily bleeding, deep into his room. The door was slammed shut with the stick, then, finally, all was quiet.”

The second section of “The Metamorphosis” continues the story this way:

As soon as Gregor was alone, he began to feel ill. Turning around was an effort. Even breathing was an effort. A thin stream of blood trickled from his flank down his fuzzy belly. He wanted to crawl away from it, but there was no place to go. He lay still on the spot where he had come to rest just in order to get his breath back and to stop the bleeding. “I’m in a bad way,” said Gregor. It had never occurred to him before that he could really become ill. He had seen sick animals—a dove once in a while, which had fallen out of the nestling into the gutter and could not fly any more, or the weak infants of the woman next door who had to be picked up with the tongs and thrown into the dustbin, or the bugs his father used to bring to him when he was still a young boy and which he had liked so much.

Except the second section of “The Metamorphosisdoesn’t begin that way. An artificial-intelligence application called Sudowrite wrote the paragraph above. I inputted the text of the first section of “The Metamorphosis” and then pressed a button called Whirlwind. The computer composed the continuation.

Sudowrite uses, as its base, GPT-3, the latest version of a deep-learning neural network that can auto-generate text. The organization that created GPT-3, OpenAI, was founded as a nonprofit with a mission “to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.” In July of 2019, Microsoft invested a billion dollars, which allowed OpenAI to create a supercomputer with two hundred and eighty-five thousand C.P.U. cores, ten thousand G.P.U.s, and four hundred gigabits per second of network connectivity per server. Microsoft claims that it ranks in the top five supercomputers in the world, processing more than twenty-three thousand teraflops per second. The power of the supercomputer has been transformative. GPT-2, which John Seabrook took for a test drive in 2019, asking it to write an article for The New Yorker, had 1.5 billion parameters. GPT-3 has a hundred and seventy-five billion. (A parameter is a configuration variable required to make a prediction in machine learning.) Brute computational power is why Sudowrite can write like Kafka.

GPT-3 hints at a world in which machines can generate language. The consequences are vertiginous. To spend ten minutes with Sudowrite is to recognize that the undergraduate essay, the basic pedagogical mode of all humanities, will soon be under severe pressure. Take an A paper, change a few words in the first paragraph, push buttons three times, and you have an essay that fits the assignment. Whatever field you are in, if it uses language, it is about to be transformed. The changes that are coming are fundamental to every method of speaking and writing that presently exists.

Amit Gupta is one of the founders of Sudowrite. He left Silicon Valley for a career as a science-fiction writer and found a glorious fusion of the two when GPT-3 appeared. “Other artists have had tools like this for a long time,” he said. “There are really sophisticated tools for visual artists—whether it’s Photoshop or a 3‑D tool, there’s all these things that you can apply. People who are using 3‑D models aren’t using clay. They’re not using the tools of the past. They’re using really advanced tools that automate a lot of the processes. But writing has been stuck in the past. We’re not using paper and pen, but we’re not much better off than that.” Sudowrite accesses GPT-3’s interface and turns it into a legible tool that any writer can use. Currently, Sudowrite is in beta. Gupta imagines the product turning into a resource that writers will pay five to ten dollars per month to use.

Kafka has a plain style. But Sudowrite is not just for plain styles. In fact, it works better with more distinctive literary styles. In the autumn of 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave himself an opiate and fell asleep while reading “Purchas’s Pilgrimage.” He woke up after a dream that lasted three hours, in which he believed that he had written between two hundred and three hundred lines. On waking, he began transcribing what he had dreamt.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Unfortunately, Coleridge was interrupted by a “person on business from Porlock,” and, “on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.” If Coleridge had Sudowrite, he would have typed in what he had and pressed a button.


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