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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Our robot overlords read Jane Austen

It’s a truism that the best way to improve your writing is to read the work of good writers. Apparently, this maxim holds true even for chatbots.


Such is the conclusion we might draw from a recent New York Times article with the piquant headline “Watch an A.I. Learn to Write by Reading Nothing but Jane Austen.” (In alternate versions of the story, the AI’s diet consists of the Federalist Papers, the complete works of Shakespeare, Moby Dick, the entire Harry Potter canon, or transcripts of the 1980s-vintage TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.)


In the version we care about, NYT staffer Aatish Bhatia fed Austen’s roughly 800,000 words into an artificial intelligence program he nicknamed BabyGPT—a teeny-tiny version of the now-famous ChatGPT, the bot that is coming for the jobs of us writers. Then he prompted BabyGPT with a snippet of Austen (" ‘You must decide for yourself,’ said Elizabeth”—Pride and Prejudice, chapter 21) and took the program through repeated rounds of training—basically, trial-and-error efforts to predict what letters will follow each other in a passage of English prose.


Et voilà! In just an hour, the AI went from spouting total gibberish to spouting gibberish that bears some resemblance to Austenian prose: “ ‘You must decide for yourself,’ said Elizabeth, rather repeatedly; ‘that is very agreeable displeasure, they will ever be a lively young woman as it will be more disagreeable.’ ”


Not, admittedly, up to the original (“ ‘You must decide for yourself,' said Elizabeth, ‘and if, upon mature deliberation, you find that the misery of disobliging his two sisters is more than equivalent to the happiness of being his wife, I advise you by all means to refuse him’ ”)--or even serviceable pastiche. To attain ChatGPT-like levels of depth and sophistication, an AI needs to be trained on hundreds of millions of words, not the relative handful produced by Austen. But heck--I’ve read Jane Austen fanfiction that was only marginally better.


You think I’m joking? Bot-produced JAFF is already here, kind of: JAFF writer April Karber just published Pride AI Prejudice, a set of short Austenian mashups—Pride and Prejudice at Disneyland! Pride and Prejudice and Star Trek!--drafted by a bot, based on prompts and tweaks supplied by Karber.


Judging from the free sample provided on Amazon, the results are occasionally funny but mostly lame, which is at least a temporary relief to those of us who write for a living. And no, I’m not going to fork over $3.19 to read the whole collection: I can’t afford to be profligate with my cash now that a robot is preparing to put me out of work.

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