Writing a book? Buy a computer programme

writing-algorithmPhil Parker is unlike any writer you’ve ever met – or read for that matter. That’s because he doesn’t write most of his books. Instead, the trained economist uses sophisticated algorithms that can pen a whole book from start to finish in as little as a few minutes. The secret is sophisticated programming mimicking the thought process behind formulaic writing. It can take years to create these programs, but once completed, new books can be churned out in minutes.

This method has led to Parker’s company – ICON Group International Inc – auto-writing more than a million titles, mostly nonfiction books on very specific subjects. But there’s poetry, too – see an example at right. (Parker says most poetry is governed by strict formulas.) He claims he’s basically applying 19th Century Taylorism to the publishing industry, emulating the famous auto manufacturer’s process.

Parker’s work isn’t publishing’s first foray into auto-writing, but up until now, most, like companies like Chicago-based Narrative Science and North Carolina’s StatSheet, focused on short, formulaic sports and crime writing for newspapers, not full-length books.

Parker says the average researcher spends 40 to 50% of their time reading other people’s work. That, coupled with relatively short careers, leads to burnout, and stymies discovery. He says his innovation helps free up time to focus on discovering new data.

“I’m excited,” Parker says. “[It could help] some diseases in the world of agriculture and plant diseases, especially … If I can find the formulated methodology behind the science, ultimately, a computer might write that.”

Parker explains the value of the algorithm as a tool to map different species, which can then be cross-referenced and used as a matrix of data to map and compare different flora and fauna.

“In essence, you have a computer program guessing what scientists will discover and then writing a report of findings of what you see in nature,” he says. “The application of these kinds of things can open windows to subjects that people didn’t know were there … Right now, there are 400,000 plant species and sub-species out there in the world. Research and agriculture has only been able to cover about 1% of those species. But some of [them] could be very, very useful.”

How useful remains to be seen. Parker says he plans on making his findings public knowledge, and is already publishing to totoagriculture.org, a site that shares world-agriculture information. Still, he’s tentative, though results have been positive so far.

“We’re posting the facts that might be an engine for a formula,” he says. “I want to be very careful with the academics. We have already done it for chromosome counts; predict the chromosome counts within plant species. The results were pretty encouraging.”

Those results include naming new species. “It’s [the algorithm is] predicting the language that people would use.”

Parker’s been at this for years. His formula, originally used for printing, is able to churn out entire books in minutes. It’s similar to the work being done by Narrative Science and StatSheet, except those companies are known for short form auto-writing for newspapers. Parker’s work is much longer, focusing on obscure non-fiction and even poetry.

It’s not creative writing, though, and Parker isn’t interested in introspection, exploring emotion or storytelling. He’s interested in exploiting reproducible patterns — that’s how his algorithm can find, collect and “write” so quickly. And how he can apply that model to other disciplines, like science.

What remains to be seen is whether his new data model will revolutionize the world of deductive reasoning and, beyond that, medicine, forensics, or other scientific disciplines.

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