What if... The author is an algorithm?

Some Reflections on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Literature

IDEAS FOR TEACHING

Il nostro nuovo millennio è stato testimone di un'incredibile e rapida crescita della tecnologia basata sul trattamento delle informazioni attraverso complessi sistemi computerizzati. Ciò che era fantascienza nel passato millennio è ora diventato realtà. Ma la tecnologia e l'intelligenza artificiale possono avere un impatto anche sulla fantasia e sulla composizione letteraria?

by Mauro Spicci, Timothy Alan Shaw

Our new millennium has witnessed an incredible, rapid growth in technology based on the handling of information through complex, computerized systems. Responses that have become even more necessary in our rapidly-changing, interconnected world. What was science fiction in the past millennium has now become reality. The benefits are clear for all to see: our pocket-sized smartphones give us immediate access to communication, social interaction, music, photography, navigation, encyclopaedic information, entertainment, banking, health monitoring. The list is long and will only get longer as the years pass.

The buzzword of our time is AI – Artificial Intelligence. We are talking about what is properly described as “narrow” (or weak) artificial intelligence, in which computers exploit algorithms and focus on performing one task well, and much more quickly than the human brain could perform it. This narrow AI might be dedicated to security through facial recognition, to translating from one language to another, to navigating, soon even to driving our cars with a high degree of autonomy. What many researchers are seeking to achieve, however, is what we may call strong or Artificial General Intelligence. While narrow AI may outperform humans at whatever its specific task is, like playing chess or solving equations, AGI would outperform humans at nearly every cognitive task.

There are some who doubt that Artificial General Intelligence will ever be achieved. Others again wonder if we want to achieve this. Is there a risk of generating forms of artificial intelligence that could surpass human intelligence and dominate humankind?

The other fascinating question is whether AI can be developed to move into fields where logic and computational capacity are not paramount. Could an artificial intelligence achieve fantasy, creativity, humour, aesthetic sensibility? Could a machine ever truly substitute an author? What would happen if the author were an algorithm?

We probably imagine that the answer is no – “machines” will not make us laugh, compose music or write (great) literature. We may be in for a surprise as experiments on literary composition in the “hands” of artificial intelligence are already emerging. We wait with bated breath for a new current of writers!

We believe that the best way to approach the topic of the relationship between Artificial Intelligence and writing is to confront it with a concrete example. The first example of a "novel" entirely written by an Artificial Intelligence is 1 The Road, published in 2018 by Jean Boîte Éditions. The novel is considered the first example of a text entirely written and edited by Artificial Intelligence and represents a cultural and literary product that deserves attention and careful reflection.

The activities proposed below are structured as a series of steps:

  • Step 1: Gathering background information about the novel and the context that made it possible;
  • Step 2: Exercising critical thinking through a Thinking Routine;
  • Step 3: Reading and analysing an excerpt from the first narrative text written by Artificial Intelligence;
  • Step 4: Promoting a student-led investigation and organising a debate on the topic of the relationship between writing and Artificial Intelligence.

STEP 1: SOME BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The first activity proposed is the reading and critical analysis of an excerpt from the novel 1 The Road: the passage is introduced by two paragraphs containing some basic information about the “author” (or the “creator”) and the style of the novel itself.

The Author

Style and themes

STEP 2: CRITICAL THINKING

After asking students to gather some essential information about the context of the novel, you can move on to a second phase, in which students are invited to use their critical thinking to explore the marriage of humans and Artificial Intelligence in creative and original ways.
The proposed activity is a well-known Thinking Routine called "See, Think, Wonder," which promotes the exercise of critical thinking from a high-impact visual input.

THINKING ROUTINE: SEE, THINK, WONDER

SEE

THINK

WONDER

STEP 3: READ AND ANALYSE THE EXCERPT

In Step 3 students are asked to read and analyse an excerpt from 1 The Road. The analysis goes through the usual steps of literary analysis (Comprehension, Analysis, Interpretation, Your Voice) and helps students fully understand the stylistic structure and content of the novel.
 

A.I. Storytelling

Comprehension

Analysis

Interpretation

Your Voice

STEP 4: ACTIVE INVESTIGATION & DEBATE

It is now time to explore the topic of the relationship between human intelligence and Artificial Intelligence through an Active Investigation, followed by a Debate exercise designed to further stimulate classroom discussion.
 

Answer

Read and answer

Research the topic and write brief notes

Now debate the question

CONCLUSION

Advanced technology, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence have progressed in leaps and bounds over the last twenty years and there is no reason to suppose that this progress will be halted or even slowed down.

Our task, as citizens of today and tomorrow, is perhaps to be aware of how AI affects our lives and our security and to make informed choices where possible.

Our world is already a realization of many of the projections and predictions of science fiction and fantasy of the last century. The last and toughest challenge might well be designing computer algorithms capable not only of rapid logical and computational acts but also of imitating qualities that today still distinguish us from AI – true creativity, emotion and empathy, humour and playfulness.

Referenze iconografiche: Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo, imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

 

Mauro Spicci è docente, formatore, autore di libri di testo e ricercatore presso l’Università di Tampere (Finlandia). Ha partecipato a una serie di progetti di sviluppo scolastico in Europa e in diversi Paesi in via di sviluppo, dove ha collaborato con i governi locali per creare percorsi di empowerment professionale per docenti e formatori su temi come il pensiero critico e l’apprendimento transdisciplinare. Per Pearson Italia ha curato il corso digitale Le Thinking Routines. Attività per sviluppare il pensiero critico rivolto ai docenti della Scuola secondaria di primo e secondo grado. Infine è autore del corso di Letteratura inglese Amazing Minds.

Timothy Alan Shaw: graduated from Oxford University and the York University Language Teaching Centre. He has 30 years of experience as a teacher and teacher trainer in Italian high schools and has published course books and guided readers in English. He is also author of the english literature course Amazing Minds.

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