The End of Writer’s Block: Selmer Bringsjord ’87 Ph.D.

By Zachary Block '99 / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
A computer did not write this article.

Just ask Selmer Bringsjord, a leader in the field of artificial intelligence, who has spent much of the past decade developing an “advanced story generator,” or a computer that can compose short stories. Known as Brutus.1, the machine can turn out a different tale of betrayal and deception—all of them set in universities, naturally—every few seconds. The stories aren’t exactly high art, but one was good enough to fool a hapless British book agent in an informal experiment conducted several years ago by London’s Sunday Times.

Before human short-story writers panic in the face of this juggernaut of productivity, however, Bringsjord says that, far from demonstrating the creative powers of computers, Brutus exposes their limitations. Everything produced by the refrigerator-size computer is based on what Bringsjord and his collaborators have programmed into it—the famous authors they studied and the stories they deconstructed and converted, piece by piece, into complex algorithms.

“There are people who love the notion of [artificial intelligence] so much that they kind of lose sight of how little machines do and how much people do,” says Bringsjord, who directs the artificial intelligence and reasoning lab at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (He also chairs the school’s cognitive sciences department.) “Brutus,” he adds, “doesn’t have the ability to read and learn.”

In recent months Bringsjord has moved beyond Brutus and started to design a computer that eventually will create characters, or, in his words, “virtual beings that have true, three-dimensional depth” and whose behavior “emerges from a true depth of knowledge and belief.” Eventually he hopes to combine Brutus and this as yet unnamed effort to create a computer that can spin stories containing both plot and characters.

Bringsjord traces his interest in computer-generated writing back to his own literary ambitions. While working on his doctorate in philosophy under the late Roderick Chisholm, Bringsjord began writing a novel in the style of best-selling author Tom Clancy. Bringsjord says he used logic to break down the thriller genre into templates onto which he stretched his own plot involving Soviet and American spies and threats of nuclear attack. The result was Soft Wars, which was a minor commercial, if not literary, success.

The war on terror is pushing Bringsjord to develop yet another application of artificial intelligence. He recently received a grant from the Pentagon to use logic to model the reasoning of analysts monitoring terrorist activity. Bringsjord says he’s enjoying applying his work to a task that could possibly save lives: “My wife used to tell me, ‘A lot of what you do seems fun. But does it really help anybody?’” Until now, “I had to say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

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