One of my favorite book reading experience is with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. If you are unfamiliar with the book, the name may imply that it is about fixing motorcycles. Well, the name Motorcycle Maintenance says it all. If it’s not about fixing bikes, then what could it be! Actually, this 1974 book is a fictionalized autobiography. It tells a story of a 17-day trip of the author who drove his motorcycle from Minnesota to North California with Chris, his son. The reason that this book sold over 5 million copies worldwide and sits in the hearts of readers is, just like other great travel literature, it doesn’t tell only where the author has been and how. It doesn’t only tell which places they visited or the history of those towns. Instead, it has woven life philosophies and world views. As we read on, not only do we learn the exterior path, but we dive into the mind of the author. As readers, we can even choose and adapt the lessons to our lives.
Travel literature is a genre that is both difficult and simple to write. That is, to finish writing one is easy but to write a good one is no easy task. If we just want to succeed in writing one, we can simply arrange the storyline from point A to point B, search Google on the way and “fill up” words to fill the pages. However, if we want to write great works, the author will need to get inside one’s mind and talk to oneself. They shall figure out whether the mind moves with the body that travels along the roads and how.
Great works are difficult to write, this is why I was much surprised with the latest research. The one about an AI writing travel literature!
Ross Goodwin, former Obama administration ghostwriter sought new possibilities in an attempt to create travel literature by an AI. He hoped that his system can create an American road trip masterpiece. If you are to meet with Goodwin’s “author”, you will see that he is a black Cadillac with a white-domed camera at the trunk and a GPS atop the roof. Inside, a microphone is installed for recordings while dangling wires will connect to a laptop sitting beside a receipt printer.
This printer is where the travel literature will begin.
Goodwin is no amateur in creating literature with AI. He describes himself as “a writer of writers” (which is coding for a program to write). In the past, he has used AI to write a novel from a 2014 torture report. He has roamed around with an attached camera so that the AI can write poetry and he has also used AI to write screenplays.
However, this is the first time that he is using it to write travel literature. The book will be recognized as “the first novel written by a machine” called 1 The Road (Goodwin disagrees with the title, but the publisher insisted).
The official website (https://www.jean-boite.fr/product/1-the-road-by-an-artificial-neural) explains that this book uses “the car as the pen” and “imposes a new reflection of literature in the new era of machines”.
Is the AI a good writer? You decide.
This book began with these sentences.
“It was seven minutes to ten o’clock in the morning, and it was the only good thing that had happened.”
“What is it? the painter asked. The time was six minutes until ten o’clock in the morning, and the wind stood as the windows were freshly covered with boxes.”
“The time was three minutes to ten o’clock in the morning, and the conversation was finished while the same interview was over.”
I’m not sure whether you find this “good”. For me, I find it peculiarly fascinating. One day this type of work may inspire someone as effectively as works by human authors.
If that happens, can you still undoubtedly say “machines don’t have a heart”?