AI Case Study
Ross Goodwin trained a system to generate literary travel fiction using neural networks
Ross Goodwin carried out a project to generate a 'novel' based on his cross-country trip from Brooklyn to New Orleans. He equipped the car with a surveillance camera, an old GPS unit and a microphone, all connected to its laptop which was in turn connected to a printer. Goodwin has trained a long short-term memory (LSTM) neural networks on hundreds of books and Foursquare location data, which the three devices and and the computer’s internal clock would feed with data along the trip. As the system was fed data, the 'results' were printed on paper and that is how the 'novel' was created.
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"On March 25, 2017, a black Cadillac with a white-domed surveillance camera attached to its trunk departed Brooklyn for New Orleans. An old GPS unit was fastened atop the roof. Inside, a microphone dangled from the ceiling. Wires from all three devices fed into Ross Goodwin’s Razer Blade laptop, itself hooked up to a humble receipt printer. This, Goodwin hoped, was the apparatus that was going to produce the next American road-trip novel.
The aim was to use the road as a conduit for narrative experimentation, in the tradition of Kerouac, Wolfe, and Kesey, but with the vehicle itself as the artist. He chose the New York-to-NOLA route as a nod to the famous leg of Jack Kerouac’s expedition in On the Road. Underneath the base of the Axis M3007 camera, Goodwin scrawled “Further.”
Along the way, the four sensors—the camera, the GPS, the microphone, and the computer’s internal clock—would feed data into a system of neural networks Goodwin had trained on hundreds of books and Foursquare location data, and the printer would spit out the results one letter at a time. By the end of the four-day trip, receipts emblazoned with artificially intelligent prose would cover the floor of the car. They’re collected in 1 the Road, a book Goodwin’s publisher, Jean Boîte Éditions, is marketing as “the first novel written by a machine.” (Though, for the record, Goodwin says he disagrees it should bear that distinction—“That might be The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed by a program from the ’80s,” he tells me.) Regardless, it is a hallucinatory, oddly illuminating account of a bot’s life on the interstate; the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meets Google Street View, narrated by Siri.
Throughout the journey, data from the different sensors produced sentences of varying poeticism: Latitude and longitude coordinates were printed verbatim and appended with mysticism (“35.415579526 N, -77.999721808 W, at 154.68504432 feet above sea level, at 0.0 miles per hour, and the first flat of the story in the country is the first in part of the world”). Images were converted into ghostly prose (“A ski lift business for the last time the train was already being darkened and the street was already there”). Locations recognized from the Foursquare dataset were surrealistically remarked upon (“Eagles Nest Diner: a american restaurant in Goldsborough or the Marine Station, a place of fish seemed to be a man who has been assembled for three days”). Dialogue from the mic was captured and mutated (“I somewhat when i’m on why i didn’t get hurt yeah my car is an every down i know?”)."
The system generated a 'novel'.
R And D
"A former ghostwriter for the Obama administration, Goodwin describes himself as “a writer of writers.” Using neural networks, he generates poetry, screenplays, and, now, literary travel fiction. I first encountered his work when his algorithms transformed the Senate’s 2014 torture report into a novel. In Narrated Reality, his master’s thesis at NYU, Goodwin loaded his backpack with devices (a compass, a punch clock, and a camera) that fed their data into long short-term memory (LSTM) neural networks as he walked around the city, churning out weird associative poetry. A sample: “All the time the sun / Is wheeling out of a dark bright ground.” So, when a machine hacker in Biloxi finished fabricating a custom piece of hardware for him, Goodwin decided to upgrade his nascent AI and take it cross-country."
"The four sensors—the camera, the GPS, the microphone, and the computer’s internal clock—would feed data into a system of neural networks"