By PAGAN KENNEDY
One day, I stumbled across a book on Amazon called “Saltine Cracker.” It didn’t make sense: who would pay $54 for a book entirely about perforated crackers? The book was co-edited by someone called Lambert M. Surhone — a name that sounds like one of Kurt Vonnegut’s inventions. According to Amazon, Lambert M. Surhone has written or edited more than 100,000 titles, on every subject from beekeeping to the world’s largest cedar bucket. He was churning out books at a rate that was simply not possible for a human being.
So who was Lambert M. Surhone? Just looking at the numbers, you could argue that he’s one of the most prolific creators of literature who ever lived. But was he even human? There are now software programs — robots, if you will — that can gather text and organize it into a book. Surhone might be one of them.
Whatever he was, Lambert M. Surhone worked under the auspices of a German company, VDM Publishing. In addition to selling conventional books, VDM also extrudes thousands of paperbacks every year using content available without cost on the Internet. These books, or booklike products, lie in wait for the distracted shopper, someone who might think, Oh good, I really need a tome on Spearman’s law of diminishing returns, so I’ll just go ahead and pay $84. And with one overhasty click on the “Place your order” button, the shopper can pay a lot of money for a book that turns out to be warmed-over Wikipedia.
VDM Publishing puts a notice on the cover of its books, boasting “high-quality content by Wikipedia articles!” Still, not every buyer sees the disclaimer. Librarians, for instance, report that they must be vigilant in order to avoid wasting money on the robot-books. Readers complain that the books proliferate like kudzu in online stores.
But the invasion of robot-books is unsettling for another reason. I think we can all agree that it’s O.K. for robots to take over unpleasant jobs — like cleaning up nuclear waste. But how could we have allowed them to commandeer one of the most gratifying occupations, that of author?
Which brings me back to Lambert M. Surhone. Might he be a robot? Reading the fine print, I traced some of Surhone’s books to a VDM branch office in the island nation of Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar. I called. As the faraway phone rang, I fantasized about what I would say to Surhone. By now I imagined him as a character in a Vonnegut novel, and so I was tempted to ask whether he hailed from Tralfamadore, the planet inhabited by robots. But I never had a chance. No one at the company answered the phone.
Then, when I least expected it, Surhone came for me. One day, a book titled “Pagan Kennedy” popped up on Barnesandnoble.com, priced at $50. The lead editor: Lambert M. Surhone. I was both thrilled and creeped out. Reader, I ordered it. Within a few days, the book appeared on my doorstep. The cover was adorned with a stripy abstraction that looked like a beach towel. Inside was the Pagan Kennedy Wikipedia entry, and then a random collection of wiki-text tenuously connected to my path through life. (About a quarter of the book is devoted to Dartmouth College, where I worked as a visiting writer a few years ago.) Some of the text is so small you might need a jeweler’s loupe to read it. So the book was, as advertised, Wikipedia content — though it’s hard to imagine anyone would want it in this format.
Around that time, I also heard from a managing director of VDM, who responded to my badgering questions about robots. “Our wiki-books are produced by a group of about 40 editors,” Wolfgang Philipp Müller told me via e-mail. “Editors start at A and end their work at Z. Every topic that has enough content for a book is our target.” He said that last year, the company sold about 3,000 wiki-books — not a lot. Still, with prices that average around $50, it’s likely the company sees a high profit on each one.
Müller assured me that the editors are human. But many of the titles of these books suggest the mind of a machine at work. It’s hard to imagine a person signing off on, for instance, a book titled “Storage Ring: Particle Accelerator, Particle Beam, Accelerator Physics, Beamline, Australian Synchrotron, Cyclotron, Dipole Magnet, Electromagnetism.” Also, there were other robotlike errors: one of VDM’s books about the rock band the Police was paired with a cover illustration of actual police officers.
These mistakes made me wonder: Could robots ever be trusted to write original novels, histories, scientific papers and sonnets? For years, artificial-intelligence experts have insisted that machines can succeed as authors. But would we humans ever want to read the robot-books? For a serious consideration of the matter, I consulted Philip Parker, an economist and inventor who sees a bright future for the computer as author. Parker believes that A.I.-produced books, issued in a dazzling array of languages, could be crucial to the spread of literacy. Think of farmers in Malawi who lack the most basic guides to agriculture in their own language. Parker talked about the need to distribute books aimed at people who speak underserved languages like Chichewa and Tumbuka. “One thing that’s missing is the content itself — the textbooks,” Parker said, and A.I. could offer a cheap solution. In the late 1990s, he began using automatic text-generation software to produce such books. More recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has financed Parker’s use of A.I. to produce weather reports for the radio in local languages.
But Chris Csikszentmihalyi, a co-founder of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is skeptical. “Would you really want to bet your life on text generated by a robot? Imagine a book on fixing the diesel engine on your tractor. If one piece of information is wrong, you could ruin the engine. It gets even more complicated when you think about books that dispense medical advice.”
And, he added, what’s the point of using artificial intelligence to simulate the kind of work that humans enjoy? If you want to generate books in a plethora of languages, he said, “You can use the power of the diaspora from Malawi or Mozambique,” the army of highly educated volunteers who are eager to help their countrymen. “That obviates the need for A.I.”
The Internet itself offers proof of the enormous human desire to produce text — to pontificate, edit, elegize, redact, hash out, bloviate, opine and instruct. We’re spewing out billions of comments a day. VDM Publishing may have created a niche business for itself, but in the long run, I suspect, the robots will have a hard time getting a word in edgewise.
Pagan Kennedy, a 2010 Knight science journalism fellow, is the author, most recently, of “The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories.”
From: New York Times Book Review