Harry Potter and the Predictive Text

"The castle grounds snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind," the Harry Potter book begins. It continues,

The sky outside was a great black ceiling, which was full of blood. The only sounds drifting from Hagrid’s hut were the disdainful shrieks of his own furniture. Magic: it was something that Harry Potter thought was very good.

This is the opening passage of Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash, an artificial intelligence-created text generated out of the Harry Potter novels. The excerpt was created by Botnik, "a community of writers, artists and developers collaborating with machines to create strange new things." One of the Botkin brain trust is Bob Mankoff, who until recently was the cartoon editor at the New Yorker.

Like all predictive text strings, the excerpt sounds relatively human at first. The first sentence is inartful, but it makes sense. The second sentence loses a little bit of its way, though the idea of the sky as a black ceiling full of blood seems entirely acceptable in fantasy fiction. It's when you get to the shrieking furniture that the wheels start to come off. That last sentence, though, is so tone-deaf that it's actually hilarious.

I have no doubt that one day AI will successfully write fiction. Newspapers already employ robots to write simple sports and business stories. I'm not saying that these AI-produced romance or sci-fi novels will be especially good, but that's not the point. All they need is to make sense. If a computer can slap together a thousand romance novels in a minute, and then if an algorithm can sell a hundred copies of each of the books to readers for three or four bucks a piece, you're dealing with a kind of volume — in production and distribution — that the publishing industry has never even imagined.