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Tech Talks

The Muse or the Ghost?

Artificial Intelligence is getting less artificial and more intelligent. Prof. Zhou Bolei has shown us how machines learn the patterns of data and understand them. More and more skills are being acquired by algorithms and more and more jobs are being taken over by robots. When will machines learn to write, a skill we earthlings spend the good part of our primary and secondary school years learning and honing?

Well, they already have. My cousins who grew up in North America reading only English can now understand Chinese menus and text Chinese characters in WhatsApp thanks to Google Translate. Closer to home, CUHK is a leader in the field of machine translation. Its Centre for Translation Technology, founded in 2006, pioneers research in the use of technologies in translation studies as well as developing electronic corpora and database technologies.

Automatic content-making is not news in journalism. It is said that one third of the contents of Bloomberg News is churned out with AI. The AI can cut through a financial report as soon as it is available to the most pertinent facts and figures and then spin out a news report in narrative form. Machine reporting is also used by many reputable news agencies such as the Associated Press and The Washington Post in financial and sports coverage.

Do machines have literary pretensions? Ross Goodwin, a former ghostwriter for the Obama administration, has been experimenting with the use of neural networks on literary forms such as poetry and screenplays. In March 2017, he packed his laptop in his Cadillac and drove from New York to New Orleans.

Goodwin’s laptop was hooked up to several sensors that included a surveillance camera (the eye), a microphone (the ear) and GPS. En route to New Orleans, these gathered visual, audio and geographical data that were fed into the AI of the laptop which in turn generated words and sentences on a roll of paper. Goodwin did not edit the output, and published it as a novel titled 1 the Road.

The first sentence of the novel is: ‘It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.’ It may not be as famous as the first sentence in Anna Karenina or A Tale of Two Cities, but whether a muse or a ghost wrote it is hard to tell.


artificial intelligence translation literature Centre of Translation Technology Zhou Bolei