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A Japanese AI Almost Won a Literary Prize

The short-form novel hints at a computer’s desire to acquire selfhood.

Many AIs are developed to sift through and make sense of Big Data. But behind-the-scenes, others are acquiring softer human skills and deploying their algorithms to make art.

On Monday, Hitoshi Matsubara, a professor of computer science from the Future University in Hakodate in northern Japan, announced that his research team's short-form novel—co-created with an AI—had passed the initial screening of a domestic literary competition.


Though their creation didn't nab the grand prix, the human-machine collaboration showed the early promises of what could be, if the team's AI is refined in the future.

"So far, AI programs have often been used to solve problems that have answers, such as Go and shogi," said Matsubara, in a report by the Yomiuri Shimbun. "In the future, I'd like to expand AI's potential [so it resembles] human creativity."

The research team's short-form novel was submitted to the Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award, which accepts creative works from both humans and machines. This year saw the first AI entrants.

Matsubara's team provided a framework for the novel by choosing the gender of characters and outlining the plot, but the AI program was tasked with stitching the elements together as it chose specific sentences and words that had been pre-prepared by its human overlords.

The book, aptly entitled "The day a computer writes a novel" (Konpyuta ga shosetsu wo kaku hi), is essentially told from the subjective of an AI that becomes aware of its budding talents as a writer, and abandons its primary task of serving humanity.

This year, the Hoshi Literary prize received 1,450 novels, 11 of which were made with AI programs. There are four stages to the competition and the judges are not told which ones are written by humans, and which are made by both humans and AIs.

According to Satoshi Hase, a science fiction novelist, Matsubara's novel was well-structured, but still lacked fully developed characters.

In recent years, AI programs have been helping humans do everything from generate rap lyrics to make beautiful art. Though Matsubara's first attempt might not have been strong enough to secure a place in Japan's literary canon, who knows what subsequent version could achieve in the future.

Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.