Automated Content Will Unmake Existence

    July 11, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

Chess is one thing, but if we get to the point computers can best humans in the arts—those splendid, millennia-old expressions of the heart and soul of human existence—then why bother existing? Fortunately, computers have yet to match us in music or writing or dancing or even drawing—the lines are straighter, but that’s not even the point, and good luck uploading an actual right-brained imagination.*

The preceding paragraph may seem obvious to you, so deeply obvious that the assertion takes shape as an immovable stone at the center of your being. Computers creating art is an upsetting concept mostly because of what it means about humans: They, their feelings, their thoughts are predictable (or at least probable), down to the last letter, down to the last limited thought. If so, an algorithm calculating all probabilities can reproduce all scenarios, can predict all outcomes, and can even tell your story for you before you even know you have a story.

It’s all very quantum and post modern. Jorge Borges’ short story from over half a century ago, "The Library of Babel" is about an infinite (perhaps infinite) library filled with every story, and every variation of every story. At the end, Borges (or an avatar of Borges) finds comfort only in an idea that there is some overarching meaning to the infinite (perhaps infinite) repetition.

Which is the most human of thoughts, of course, the concept of meaning. Which is also very predictable of humans. Just wait until quantum computing takes off. Just wait until they find that boson "god" particle. Just wait till they flip the Grid this summer, all of which probably won’t unmake existence somehow. Meaning, a human desire, as predictable and probable a pursuit as it is now, will become something they’ll try to replicate—meaning, the thing itself, and not the pursuit.

And they’ll fail, I think.  It should make sense on paper: reality is something humans have yet to fully capture in art or mathematics due to obvious limitations; the right algorithm, then, should produce the most mathematically sound representation of reality and, therefore, meaning, if either of these things exist and are not, merely, human projections. But at least, like quarks and bosons and dark matter, reality and meaning will have an existence in theory, if not by direct observation, in nicely balanced equations, eventually reproducible in text or images via some crafty algorithms.

Here’s why I think they’ll fail. Aside from the more abstract idea that meaning finding itself negates itself (think of it this way: meaning and proof of meaning are matter and antimatter; when the two meet there is nothing), to produce human art a computer would have to find, feel, absorb reality to the point it is overcome, to the point it sobs for release. A computer perhaps could replicate every possibility but could never transfer the energy art requires to exist in the first place.

Proof? If proof exists of anything, this could be offered up as an example of it. Science Daily’s title is apt: Why Musicians Make Us Weep And Computers Don’t. The article details a study conducted by neuroscientists comparing brain responses to music played by humans and to music played by computers:

The study also revealed that the brain was more likely to look for musical meaning when the music was played by a pianist.

"This is similar to the response we see when the brain is responding to language and working out what the words mean," says Dr Koelsch. "Our results suggest that musicians actually tell us something when they play. The brain responses show that when a pianist plays a piece with emotional expression, the piece is actually perceived as meaningful by listeners, even if they have not received any formal musical training."

Why this complex, existential, quantum-theoretical, post-modern monolog? First, I find it comforting to think that scientists’ efforts to negate themselves (and thus, the rest of us) are doomed to fail in matters that, um, matter. Second, do a search on automated content. Yes, algorithms already exist to replace writers and content producers; they are there as algorithms to fool other algorithms, ones from search engines.

While such technology exists to generate money for humans via a kind of Internet pollution, content consumers tolerate certain parts per million so long as algorithms know their place, so long as we can recognize them when we seem them, even if computers can’t.

Phil Parker, though, has "written" 200,000 books with the help of an algorithm and a small staff (of people, not wood). A few people have even bought them, even if some of the titles aren’t all that thrilling. One thing I’ll stake my existence as a writer on, though: there’s not an ounce of soul in all 200,000.

Not that I’ve read them.

Point is: Real content speaks to real readers/listeners/viewers. Real success online comes from real content producers.

*Computers have yet to really match us in commerce, either, but I thought I’d dance around a little in the introduction with my artsy-fartsy tendencies. Computers have helped with mathematics for our insistence on commerce. Likely, an algorithm one day, once the necessity for humans is sufficiently negated, will show how illogical and unnecessarily complex an existence based upon exchange really is. Want is a decidedly human invention.

Jason Miller will complete his Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree in November.