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When an earthquake shoot Los Angeles on Monday morning (march 17th 2014) a programmed bot helped prepare Schwencke's story for him

From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind and Cultural Evolution

by Peter Swirski
McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Quebec & Kingston, Ontario, 2013
252 pp. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 9780773542952

Reviewed by Enzo Ferrara
Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM) and Istituto di Ricerche Interdisciplinari sulla Sostenibilità (IRIS)
Torino, Italy


When an earthquake hit California on Monday, March 17th 2014, the Los Angeles Times broke the news in three minutes informing web readers that a 2.7 quake had just happened near Westwood. The article, covering the details of the strike, was ordinary but for its final line: “this post – one could read – was created by an algorithm". The text was effectively put together with the inputs of the U.S. earthquake notification service via software created by the journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke. That algorithm, Quake-bot, is not the only existing bot reporter. Quite a few machines now can sieve data to provide timely information on corporate earnings, for example, or on sports statistics and financial markets. They take factual data, as those spread on the web by survey systems, and fix them into templates prewritten for the newspaper's management system, even sending reminders for the editors. This new kind of writing can be seen as the dawn of what the Polish writer and philosopher of science Stanislaw Lem anticipated ante litteram in a fictitious essay entitled History of bitic literature (Imaginary magnitude, 1973), forging the neologism biterature to include any writings of non-human origin and designating bitic authors as computhors.

The number of stories algorithms could potentially write about is growing along with the number of sensors and alerts that is available, but the path to biterature is not straightforward. T
he advent of new technologies always opens questions about changes in human attitudes and their consequences relating technological changes with philosophical and social approaches. These are the fields of Peter Swirski, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, who has devoted his career to analysing how scientific advancements affect literature, art and popular culture – he is, in fact, a renowned reviewer of Stanislaw Lem. This last book confirms his skill in handling transdisciplinary studies, blending in the proposed route from literature to biterature issues of science, mind philosophy and society.

This is not a book of futurology or literary theory. According to the author it should rather resemble an old-fashioned book of discovery or a modern adventure story of the mind trying to replicate for the computer what Darwin did for the human. The text does not adhere to any editorial codes; it consists of chapters and paragraphs cumulatively organized around the idea that, since artificial intelligence is evolving, computers will eventually be able at least to create works of literature of their own.

Underlying the archaic power of narrative for deep-seated consciousness and with the aim to exploit the chance of artificial tale too, Swirski observes that the access to writing created by machines adds literature opportunities, but it also spurs cultural and social concerns that call into question traditional ways of thinking. The scrutiny of biterature perspective – he warns – turns out being more a pressing necessity than an academic divertissement.

We have bot reporters and software that adjust their digital physiology in virtual environment as computer Operative Systems, but in both cases machines are only able to manipulate human data and generate automated information or advertisements as done by Amazon, YouTube, or Facebook. To describe the state of the art, Swirski praises Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, and Stanislaw Lem as pioneer scholars of biological and artificial intelligences and offers further examples of individuals who trusted artificial intelligence, as the futurists Hans Moravec and Alvin Toffler, or the genius of informatics Ray Kurzweil. What unifies their works is the observation that in any case intelligence can be seen as an unceasing trial and error test about the future continuously receiving sensorial feedbacks from the present, while data mining the past experience through cognitive skills. A machine can react; based on data we input, software systems accumulate information on what we like (books, music, voyages), that’s why they generate with time more and more suggestions making rough and untimely estimates of what we are actually interested to. But these are not creative acts; the accumulation of data is not equivalent to thinking.

Differently from a machine, humans strive to interpret any fragment of information – in fact they frequently interpret too much. That is why machines, not capable to separate information according to significance, are excluded from creativity, yet. However, the border is thin, and it is related also to our perception. There are computers setting up artworks well attended and appreciated as well as dozens of titles exist composed by unimaginative writers that repeat their prose according to the formulas of conformism. We accept the latters as agents of creation but not a computer similarly working – Swirski explains – because we believe computers should think the way of humans. Exactly, one point is about
awareness and consciousness of artificial intelligence. The only comparison we have is to biology, but it might be misleading. Self-analysis for hardware and updating programs for software are already available; if integrated self-organization would be attained by computer machines, it would be difficult to deny the possibility of evolution and autonomous determination of bitic entities.

With similar capabilities a redefinition is required for the concepts of development and adaptation and a lot of questions arise about robotic futures (most were tackled by Lem in SF stories). For example we should reflect on how pursue bitic education, or on the dreadful possibilities of robotic warfare, or on the integrated meaning that diversity, emotions, and desire will assume. Maybe love affairs
will resemble that of Samantha and Theodore, the Operating System personified by a female voice and its/her human owner, respectively, central characters of Her, the Oscar winner movie conceived by Spike Jonze after reading of Cleverbot – a PC algorithm used to talk with humans.

Swirski is confident that computers will soon be able to act as literary writers; as well
, independently on the mindfulness of their acts, they will learn to grow autonomously their software and hardware. T
he consequent scenarios would leave us behind as digital progression overwhelms the pace of natural processes. “The future belongs to artificial intelligence” – Swirski concludes – if algorithms ever go native, nothing will be able to stop their evolution.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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