The bot and the book at Jaipur Lit Fest

Faizal Khan

The next time Barack Obama tweets his favourite books of the year-one of the world's most followed literary picks-it won't be a surprise if there is a book written by a machine on the glorified list. Advances in artificial intelligence are leading us to a future where the name of a human could be missing from the spine of the book. The daunting reality has even forced the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) to focus on the big leaps in computation and the exciting, yet uncomfortable questions they raise on the arts and creativity at its 13th edition this year.

For the second successive year, the keynote address at JLF, which began on January 23 with stilted puppets and symbolic weaving of khadi by the audience, was delivered by a scientist instead of the traditional speech by a famous writer like Pico Iyer in 2018 or UR Ananthamurthy in 2009. Oxford don and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy stepped onto the stage on the opening day from where Nobel Prize-winning biologist Venki Ramakrishnan had painted science as a thing of beauty down to the sub-atomic particle last year. Du Sautoy, the author of the bestselling The Creativity Code: How AI is Learning to Write, Paint and Think, pointed to the possibilities in the realm of machine-generated creativity.

Delivering the keynote address on The Arts, Sciences and Creativity at the packed front lawn of the Diggi Palace venue of the JLF, du Sautoy said: "After the last four decades of AI winter, this decade is going to be AI heatwave… It is not faraway when a machine is going to sit on the JLF stage, telling us about its new novel."

Art & algorithm

It has been a long journey for AI since the days when images of evil machines were splashed on screens by Hollywood movies. "It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy," reads the opening line of 1 The Road, dubbed the first novel written by AI last year. The book, credited to American AI creator Ross Goodwin, came out of a car journey from New York to New Orleans. The car was fitted with a surveillance camera, GPS unit, microphone and clock. A laptop with neural networks (the data-filled AI software that uses algorithms) printed out the novel in the back of the car, using real-time data from the gadgets.

The creation of 1 The Road, inspired by the 1957 novel On the Road by American author Jack Kerouac, had the support of Artists + Machine Intelligence Grants, a collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and Google AI. It shows the long journey of neural networks. Two years ago, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, the first-ever AI artwork to go under the hammer, fetched $432,000 in New York.

If the AI novel had the help of data from hundreds of novels on its neural networks, the AI art was aided by a network trained on thousands of portraits. Also in 2018, an art exhibition in a New Delhi gallery brought together the world's best practitioners of artworks made by AI, launching the art community in the capital towards topics of labour, perception and creativity.

The power packed behind the creativity of AI today was in full view in Seoul four years ago when the Chinese-origin boardgame Go's South Korean world champion Lee Sedol suffered a spectacular loss to Google's AlphaGo machine. The evolution in the machine code has seen the emergence of machine writing like Scheherazade-IF, named after the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights and developed by AI researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US. "This is the beginning to give AI some empathy about our world by training them on all human stories," says du Sautoy, who interestingly uses a yellow notepad and pencil instead of a computer to create math.

American inventor Ray Kurzweil's cybernetic poet can write poetry and the more recent GPT2, developed by the Elon Musk-backed non-profit lab OpenAI last November, can generate text. While announcing GPT2, OpenAI alarmed people, saying it was too dangerous to be released for fear of being misused in today's 'fake news' world. Microsoft's The Next Rembrandt project and the Jazz Continuator have both shaken up the link between art and technology.
"It is a brave new world," says JLF producer Sanjoy K Roy. "Today, any piece of art has science and technology in it. One can't exist without the other," adds Roy, underlining the logic behind a scientist delivering the festival's keynote address for the second year in a row.

Among the speakers from around the world JLF has assembled this year are Tilly Blyth, head of collections and principal curator at the Science Museum in London, Harvard professor Tarun Khanna whose collaborations include those with Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and Niti Aayog, Jaspreet Bindra, author of Tech Whisperer, and Payal Arora, Erasmus University Rotterdam professor who works on reforms in technology.

Future of AI

The recent advances in AI have presented curious scenarios. Not everything is rosy. A group of American AI researchers who wanted to create an eighth Harry Potter book, saw their project floundering from the start. "Magic was something Harry Potter thought was very good," read the opening sentence. Soon, Ron started to eat Hermione's family. The 'eighth' book was titled Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash, a title apparently given by AI.

Not everything is bad though. A 350-word section of du Sautoy's The Creativity Code was written by an algorithm that specialises in producing short-form essays based on a number of keywords fed to it. Not even his editor noticed it.

Du Sautoy believes AI is moving towards a future where it will have consciousness and understanding, empathy and emotions. "One day, AI will become conscious. So my phone will tell me, 'I think therefore iPhone am'," he said.
On the serious side, when AI develops consciousness, it will have stories to tell that will be different from our own. "If a lion could speak, we won't be able to understand it," says du Sautoy, quoting German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. "AI and humans can make a pathway as collaborators, not competitors," he adds.

Hindustani classical singer Shubha Mudgal, du Sautoy's co-keynote speaker, sees the infinite diversity offered by the arts as a significant tool for creating a better world. "Creativity is an exercise that goes beyond the boundaries of each discipline," says Mudgal, offering yet another reason for collaboration instead of competition.

There may be even special categories of awards that would be given away to celebrate successful union between AI and humans in creative endeavours in literature, music and cinema. And an AI literary critic in the future that could appreciate the aspects that humans would have been missing. Or, as du Sautoy says, maybe AI will find human creativity boring and walk away with another AI, leaving the human behind, a scenario we have already seen in the 2013 Hollywood sci-fi drama, Her.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer