Don’t fear the Writernator

Computer-generated writing will never replace the human kind

MANY PEOPLE will be familiar with automated writing through two features of Gmail. Smart Reply proffers brief answers to routine emails. If someone asks “Do you want to meet at 3pm?”, Gmail offers one-click responses such as “Sure!” More strikingly, Smart Compose kicks in as you write, suggesting endings to your sentences. Both are not only rendered in flawless English; they often eerily seem to have guessed what you want to say. If someone sends bad news, Smart Reply might offer “Ugh.”

The New Yorker’s John Seabrook recently described a more powerful version of this technology, called GPT-2, which can ably mimic his magazine’s style. Such systems use a digital network of billions of artificial “neurons” with virtual “synapses”—the connections between neurons—that strengthen as the network “learns”, in this case from 40 gigabytes-worth of online writing. The version Mr Seabrook tested was refined with back-issues of the New Yorker.

The metaphor of the brain is tempting, but “neurons” and “synapses” deserve those scare-quotes. The system is merely making some—admittedly very sophisticated—…