Sun to my day

As the Sunday Times last noted weekend, Artificial Intelligence is now “so advanced” that it can furnish university students with mediocre essays. It can fake references and fool software intended to prevent plagiarism. It can refer knowledgeably to a seminal work by Adam Smith called The Abundance of Countries. Are you worried yet?

What fun it is when AI writing pops up in the news. (See also NB, February 26, 2021; and the AI ​​“robot artist” Ai-Da, who gave an uncanny recital at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford last autumn.) This latest revival of the subject is inspired by a book written, mostly , by humans: Story Machines: How computers have become creative writers (Routledge, £11.99), by Mike Sharples and Rafael Pérez y Pérez. Story Machines Traces the history of attempts to mechanize literature and the spread of AI into the more menial levels of everyday life – offering to auto-complete a sentence in an email, say, or speaking flatly through one smart device or another. How long will it be before Ai-Da et al take over the literary festivals (“Do you use a pen?”) or become zealous participants in scraps on social media?

We are meant to be reassured by the fact that the “sophisticated” software offered by Sharples and Pérez y Pérez cannot write a convincingly Shakespearean sonnet: “Thou art the sun to my day, the stars to my night / The hope to my despair, the faith to my doubt / The love to my heart, the breath to my life”. This sonnet doesn’t rhyme, as the ST‘s reporter points out. He also reckons that these lines are “quite poetic”.

Clearly, we had to try out the same software, called GPT-3, for ourselves. Book reviewers, take note. Via the Story Machines website (, we asked for a hot take on the latest novel from Ian McEwan:

The new Ian McEwan novel Lessons is a fast-paced, high-concept thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. McEwan expertly weaves together a suspenseful story of love, betrayal, and mystery.

I highly recommend Lessons if you’re a fan of thrillers. It’s well written and one of the best new novels out there.

We like that “I” – fake first-person pronouns are all the rage round these parts.

We tried again, taking a different tack. Where does GPT-3 think we should start with Elizabeth Bowen?

A bookstore in a small town in New England is having a contest to find the best Elizabeth Bowen novel. The contest is open to anyone in the town and the winner will receive a free copy of the best book in the store. The contest starts with a group of people discussing the best Elizabeth Bowen novel. No one seems to be able to agree on which one is the best. They all give different reasons why their favorite is the best. Some people say that the best Elizabeth Bowen novel is the one that speaks to them the most. Others say that the best one is the one that is most literate. Still others say that the best one is the one with the best story. No one can agree on which one is the best, but they all want to win the free book. The contest goes on for days and no one can come up with a definitive answer. Then, one day, the storeowner walks into the bookstore and sees the group of people discussing the best Elizabeth Bowen novel. He walks up to them and says, “Which is the best Elizabeth Bowen novel? The one I have is the best Elizabeth Bowen novel.” Everyone in the group turns to him and says, “You’re kidding! Your book is not the

And here the machine stopped.

Human book hacks don’t always get the details right. We know one such fellow who, years ago, wrote confidently of a hard-boiled book called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. He meant Gerard Woodward’s gumshoe-free novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon; the title alludes to King Lear. Looking up the TLS review, by Irving Wardle, of The Empty Space by Peter Brook (who died last week), we found it weighing up a volume called The Open Space. These things happen, AI-aided or not. At least they sometimes add to the abundance of the gaiety of countries and nations.

Almost exactly a year ago, we were writing about a bundle of nervesa neverthriving of jugglers and a shower of blessings – all terms gathered together in, well, Gathered Together (1927) by Helen and Philip Gosse. That slim second-hand volume drew heavily on the fifteenth-century Book of Saint Albans, traditionally attributed to Dame Juliana Berners; consider it a poor scholar’s way of getting in touch with the past.

Our acquaintance with Dame Juliana was renewed via a recent expedition to the Oxfam Bookshop in Kingston upon Thames – a modest sanctuary from the roaring traffic’s boom, where a Kindle is displayed trapped in a cage by the till. Here we finally laid hands on a cheap early edition of An Exaltation of Larks: or, The “Venereal” Game by James Lipton, a man best known to some as the creator and former host of the American television series Inside the Actors Studio.

This book was first published in the US in 1968; ours is a price-clipped but fairly presentable copy of the British edition published a few years later. Lipton continued to tinker with it over the years, until the “ultimate edition” appeared in 1993. And no wonder: there is some pleasure in this “innocent summer ramble through unfamiliar fields”. Plocking terms from the Book of Saint Albans and engravings from miscellaneous sources (by Granville, Dürer and that noble artist Anonymous), Derivations range from the obvious (a siege of heronsnamed for “the way the heron doggedly waits for its prey”) to the unknown (a cete of badgers “may be one of the old Chaucerian words for ‘city'”). Lipton also threw in some new and relatively recent “candidates for our contemporary lexicon”; sources include those sportsmen who chuckled over a debauchery of bachelors as well as the don who supposedly coined an essay of Trollope’s.

If you are determined to make up some “venereal” terms of your own – Lipton seems to relish the potential for confusion that the word venereal invites – he advises you to fight the initial impulse towards alliteration. The best collective terms are “unalloyed metaphor” – alliteration is a bonus. Amid his own coinages and other latter-day contributions, a profit of gurusa shrivel of critics and an index of waiters strike a vaguely familiar note for us. The poor fellow pictured above belongs to an iamb of poets. Do poets still use iambs? Does GPT-3? Perhaps the game is still afoot, and it is not too late for an alternative term to be discovered.

The post Sun to my day appeared first on TLS.

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