Robin "Sourdough" Sloan is using a machine-learning autocomplete system to write his next novel

Robin Sloan is a programmer and novelist whose books like Sourdough and Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore are rich and evocative blends of self-aware nerdy playfulness and magical speculation.

Earlier this year, Sloan published some preliminary information on a machine learning system for writing prose that he was noodling around with.

Since then, the system has expanded and he is now using it to generate prompts as he writes his next novel, invoking it midsentence to get suggestions for completing the thought.

The system was trained on an exotic corpus of old Wired articles, the Internet Archive's storehouse of old short stories from If and Galaxy, novels by "John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Joan Didion and Philip K. Dick," the poetry of Johnny Cash, oral histories of Silicon Valley, and, of course, "the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Fish Bulletin."

Sloan invokes the ML system's predictions to get strange, oracular autocompletes for his prose, like "The slow-sweeping tug moved across the emerald harbor."

It's reminiscent of my favorite sly joke from Orwell: Julia was twenty-six years old… and she worked, as he had guessed, on the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department. She enjoyed her work, which consisted chiefly in running and servicing a powerful but tricky electric motor… She could describe the whole process of composing a novel, from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the final product. She "didn't much care for reading," she said. Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.

Mr. Sloan has finished his paragraph:

"The bison were lined up fifty miles long, not in the cool sunlight, gathered around the canyon by the bare sky. They had been traveling for two years, back and forth between the main range of the city. They ring the outermost suburbs, grunting and muttering, and are briefly an annoyance, before returning to the beginning again, a loop that had been destroyed and was now reconstituted."

"I like it, but it's still primitive," the writer said. "What's coming next is going to make this look like crystal radio kits from a century ago."

Computer Stories: A.I. Is Beginning to Assist Novelists [David Streitfeld/New York Times]

(via Kottke)