Will computers turn into humans?

Jonathan Maas ,

The American author Ross Goodwin trains artificial intelligence to help him in his work. ‘We need to regard authorship as editing and montage,’ he says.

Ten years ago Ross Goodwin wrote speeches for the Obama administration;  nowadays he writes books and poems using artificial intelligence. He’s a good example of how life sometimes takes an unexpected turn. We talk to each other via Skype; me in Amsterdam, Goodwin in San Diego, both cities largely locked down. After we've exchanged the latest corona news, Goodwin wants to get one thing out of the way first: fixation on the fear that artificial intelligence will replace humans is nonsensical and unproductive.

It won't be the last time he emphasizes this, and a glance at his oeuvre reveals that he sees AI not as a threat, but as a creative opportunity. In March 2017, for his book 1 the Road, a contemporary version of Kerouac's On the Road, he equipped the interior of his Cadillac with an AI-writingmachine, a clock, a GPS-unit, and a microphone, and attached a camera to the outside.

Ross Goodwin in his Cadillac

He then spent four days driving with a group of friends from New York to New Orleans, the same route as On the Road. The GPS tracker recorded all the locations, the camera filmed everything, the microphone recorded the conversations in the car, and the AI, neurally pre-trained with hundreds of literary classics, processed the input, mixed things up and generated new texts from it. These were printed out in the car on till rolls. After four days, the back seat was littered with paper. The first sentence read: 'It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.’


Can a car act as a pen, and can artificial intelligence write a book? And how does that work? Data in, art out? 

1 the Road is really written by the journey,’ says Goodwin. ‘It set the pace of the book. The camera, clock and GPS locations have had a big influence on the narrative.' This is certainly noticeable: ‘35.415579526 N, -77.999721808 W, at 154.68504432 feet above sea level, at 0.0 miles per hour, and the first flat of the story in the country is the first in part of the world.’ 

Due to copyright issues, Goodwin won’t divulge exactly which literature he used to train the AI, but he says it was mainly 'heavier eastern European literature and science fiction'. He didn’t want it to become too jolly, though there’s always that risk when you carry out such a crazy experiment.

'I wanted to start a discussion about authorship. When is a literary work original? When do you become an author?'

Ross Goodwin

Goodwin lightly edited the machine output. For example, try to make heads or tails of this sentence: ‘A ski lift business for the last time the train was already being darkened and the street was already there.’ Or this one: ‘I somewhat when i’m on why i didn’t get hurt yeah my car is an every down i know?’ 

'This project was an experiment for me,' explains Goodwin. ‘If you wanted to create a novel in the classic sense, you'd edit the rough output afterwards. But I wanted to suggest a new way of writing to people and stir up discussion about authorship. When is a literary work original? When are you an author?

Look, I selected all the data that was entered into the machine myself. I trained the machine and designed the project – that's all my influence. But the book contains raw data from the machine. Is authorship an illusion? Can we as individuals be authors of something? I think we’ve rid ourselves of the idea that you can create something completely original from a vacuum. That has never really been the case, not even before the development of AI'.


How does a ghostwriter for the Obama administration become an experimental AI author, artist, creative technologist, hacker, and gonzo data scientist, as he describes himself? Goodwin wasn’t originally sure what career path he wanted to follow. ‘Something with language and math’ was all he had in mind. Out of political commitment – these were the George W. Bush years – he decided to apply for an internship as a speechwriter for Democratic senator John Kerry.

He subsequently became a ghostwriter to President Obama. Until then he had mainly been putting together briefing notes for politicians, a job that was ‘important, but also poorly paid, stressful, and creatively not satisfying enough.’ 

Meanwhile, Goodwin was also exploring programming and natural language generation, using software to convert structured data into words and sentences, 'a kind of precursor to AI'. Why did he want to write with AI? ‘Because I'm a writer,’ he laughs. ‘I just use a fancy typewriter.’ Language is the basis for every artistic expression, he says. ‘Every film begins as a screenplay, a treatise, every story begins with text, and texts are used as the basis for plays and choreographies. I’m looking for new interfaces for the written word. And I am obsessed with everything that is complex. The idea that I can train an algorithmic black box for a new application or function is insane to me’. 

'We shouldn't look for anything human in technology. We'd better figure out how AI can complement us.'

Ross Goodwin

All this prompted Goodwin to leave politics and follow the interactive telecommunications program at NYU, which he describes as an ‘art school for engineers’. It was here that he created a novel generator, curious what a computer would produce from texts by writers he admired that he fed into the machine. He found that others were more interested in his new application than in the output it generated: 'I noticed that writers need new interfaces.’ This played right into his hands, because it’s co-creation with machines that inspires him most.


Goodwin also makes poetry with AI. During our Skype conversation, he gets it to generate a poem on the spot, based on a title and a place name he came up with. The result is incoherent – though to hand it to the AI, it does have rhythm and interesting sentences ('Lift up the past, it's a brood of bitter things'). But is it the future of prose and poetry? 

‘I think we should start seeing authorship more as editing and montage,' says Goodwin, who doesn't regard that as negative. ‘AI generates thousands of options for me in terms of sentences and paragraphs. Why shouldn't I have them and then choose from that? One of those thousands of options will probably inspire and help me more than toiling in a vacuum, waiting for inspiration. I’m convinced that artificial intelligence can creatively complement writers in many more ways. Much has not yet been researched.’

Goodwin lets his thoughts run wild for a while. ‘Imagine that the automatic topping up function on your phone was trained in all your preferences and  everything you’ve read. This feature would become your shoulder companion and give you feedback and suggestions based on all that knowledge - wouldn't that be great?’

Ross Goodwin

He thinks it’s nonsense to think that AI will put writers out of a job. ’Computer-generated work still needs to be made human if it's to appeal to us. After all, we look for humanity in everything around us. We want to see our reflection in everything, and regard humans as the centre of the universe. That’s why we push technology towards humanity. 

‘Discussing whether a machine can think like a human is like wondering whether a submarine can swim. It moves through the water but does something completely different than a swimmer. And so we also must learn to appreciate technology based on what it is and what it does, not looking for something human in it. 

‘I find the apocalyptic approach to AI problematic. We're much better off thinking about how it can complement us. In what areas can it help us? That's a more constructive approach than staring at the idea that AI is going to replace us. Certainly at a time when bigger problems need to be solved'.

This was the second interview in a four-part series about AI and art. Next week, part 3: Holly Herndon, who creates music with AI.