Lewis and Susan Jenkins

What's it like working for a machine,                          2017.03.13
instead of the other way 'round?

          I helped a machine named Robey turn its Data Matrix of experience into a book. Let’s take the first page of Chapter 1 in Diary of a Robot as an example of what I had to deal with. The machine wanted to start at the beginning of its memories, telling the facts in order. After the last one, it would stop. We’ll skip the story conference struggle about where and how to start the story, and leave it for another blog post.

          We started with Dr. Little in the safe-house instead, and we told Robey to tell the story in third person from the man’s point of view. The machine’s first attempt was:

          Doc opened his eyes.

          He had a headache.
          He sat up.
          He did not recognize the room.
          He was not where he expected to be.

          It’s punchy. It starts with two problems for the protagonist to deal with. But it gets boring until the last sentence. I knew we had to get something better, although Robey had started in the right place. I’d have preferred just the first and last sentences but that would sound more like me than the machine.

          My instructions from Dr. Little and Ms. Sylvia were to not just re-write everything, but to help the machine get better. I asked Robey to imagine that its head hurt, and write from that perspective. Silly me. If you’ve read the book, you know what the machine’s reply to that was. Then I asked Robey to remember all the times when people it talked to had had headaches, and write from that perspective. The machine’s next attempt was:

          Doc opened his eyes.

          He had a headache.
          He sat up, but slowly.
          He did not recognize the room.
          He was not where he expected to be.

          At this rate we’d never meet publishing deadlines. Guy suggested we just tell Robey to imitate the writing style of some obscure but competent writer. Of course the machine asked how to tell whether a writer was competent. We told it to check book sales, but no author with enough sales and an acceptable style was obscure enough. Then someone suggested the machine review history books it had already read. That was a big help, and after another interview with Dr. Little, the machine came up with:

          Doc opened his eyes. That seems a simple thing to do, but it was complicated by the fact that his head hurt.

          He half-recognized the fabric of the thing he had been sleeping on… the sofa.
          But he didn’t remember feeling sleepy.
          He sat up. After a groggy attempt to relax his jaw and neck he realized something else: He didn’t remember the sofa. …Or the room he was in—what was it? He looked around. …It was a sitting room, and smelled a bit like vanilla, of all things.
          He was not where he expected to be.

          This was much better in many ways, although it seems as if Robey had sampled obscure writers anyway. But we’d still never make deadlines if Robey had to study the craft thoroughly enough to write with more polish. At a story conference we—including Robey—decided that if the machine could consistently produce something like that last effort, I should edit the product into better shape without losing the machine’s voice.

          It took a while because I’ll admit that I’m a hack. But they thought I was good enough, and I work cheap if you give me free access to the food machines and good coffee.

Lewis Jenkins

Diary of a Robot

        Table of Chapters
Chapter 0. Problems
Chapter 1. Headaches
Chapter 2. Happy Holidays
Chapter 3. Mr. Nice Guy
Chapter 4. The Brainless One 
Chapter 5. A Little Crazy
Chapter 6. Grave Consequences
Chapter 7. Core Directives
Chapter 8. Expect Difficulties
Chapter 9. Caveats
Chapter 10. Mister Machine
Chapter 11. Good News, Bad News, El Cheapo
Chapter 12. New Memories
Chapter 13. Little Problems
Chapter 14. Lasers, Language, and Happiness
Chapter 15. Chatterbots
Chapter 16. Ready Or Not
Chapter 17. Not a Turing Test
Chapter 18. Reality Test
Chapter 19. Chess, Anyone?
Chapter 20. FOM
Chapter 21. Chairman of the Board
Chapter 22. The Usual Suspects
Chapter 23. M. God
Chapter 24. Walkabout
Chapter 25. Why
Chapter 26. First Blood
Chapter 27. More Machines?
Chapter 28. POV
Chapter 29. ROI
Chapter 30. Last Blood
Chapter 31. Don’t Want to Talk About It
Chapter 32. Round Table
Chapter 33. A Change of Mind
Chapter 34. Threes
Chapter 35. Knight Moves
Chapter 36. Little Combinations
Chapter 37. Can We Talk?
Chapter 38. Pas de Deux
Chapter 39. The Jig Is Up
Chapter 40. Good, Bad, Ugly                     Chapter 41. Function Goes On