In his new novella, “The Death of an Author,” author Aidan Marchin describes a plate of shoddy nachos:
“The cheese was congealed, and the chips were soggy and coated in a greasy film, like some kind of lake scum. Gus forced himself to take a bite, but it tasted sour, like a sickly sweet Imitation cheese. He drank it down with a swig of beer, but even that smelled bad, like it had been out in the sun too long.”
The writing is lively, but there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. However, Aidan Marche is an unusual writer — at least for now — because Aidan Marche is a computer system. kind of.
Journalist and author Stephen Marche wrote “Death of an Author” using three artificial intelligence programs. Or three artificial intelligence programs written with extensive curation and prompting from Stephen Marche. It depends on how you look at it.
“I’m 100 percent the creator of the work,” says Marchay, “but on the other hand, I didn’t create the words.”
Pushkin Industries, an audio production company, will publish the novella next month as an audiobook and e-book. Even the nickname “Marchine” is a procedural invention, a combination of Marche and machine.
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In January, Pushkin’s chief executive, Jacob Weisberg, approached Marche, who had been writing about artificial intelligence since 2017. He asked Marche if he would be interested in using the technology to make a murder mystery. The result of this collaboration was the “death of an author,” in which one of the authors who made extensive use of AI ended up dead.
What the hell? Is it her estranged daughter? Is the crime and web fiction professor an expert on her work? Is it the eccentric billionaire she’s working on a secret artificial intelligence project with?
To tell stories from his laptop, Marche used three programs, starting with ChatGPT. He sketched out the outline of the plot through software, as well as a large number of prompts and notes. While the AI is good at many things, especially dialogue, it sucks at plot, he said.
Next, he used Sudowrite, asking the program to make sentences longer or shorter, adopt a more conversational tone, or make the text sound like something by Ernest Hemingway. Then he used Cohere to create what he calls the best lines in the book. If he wants to describe the taste of coffee, he trains the program on examples, then lets it generate similes until he finds a simile he likes.
“For me, the process is a bit similar to hip-hop,” he said. “If you’re doing hip-hop, you don’t necessarily know how to play drums, but you definitely need to know how beats work, how hooks work, and you need to be able to put them together in a meaningful way.”
Marche said these programs could be a tool for writers, declaring himself optimistic about the development of algorithmic writing in his field. But the prospect has many writers and their representatives extremely nervous, worried that machines will put writers out of work.the writers association has call “Legal and policy interventions to balance the development of useful artificial intelligence tools with the protection of human authorship.”
Weisberg, Pushkin’s chief executive, said that while new tools often displace people, they also create opportunity. Take journalism, for example.
“If regular news stories are drafted or generated by technology,” he said, “as a reporter, you can write interesting news stories about artificial intelligence instead of covering every fire.”
Marche and Pushkin tried to use software to create as much of “Death of the Author” as possible, including the introduction and its cover. But there’s one area where its creators think the technology is lacking: narration for audiobooks. So they hired a guy, Edoardo Ballerini, who has won several awards in the field.
“But this thing moved so fast,” Weisberg said. “If we were doing this now, not six weeks ago, I think we could have AI narration that meets the standards.”