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The Clockwork Writer

One of the great technological marvels of the 18th century is a mechanical boy doll made of wood and dressed in a red velvet coat with lace cuffs and cravat and white silk knee britches. The boy appears to be about three years old, barefoot, seated at a polished mahogany writing desk. The mechanical doll, 28 inches high, is holding a goose quill pen in its right hand, which is poised over a sheet of writing paper. Wind it up, and the doll dips its pen in a small brass ink pot and begins carefully to spell out a message letter by letter on the page. The doll’s head moves, and its eyes follow the progress of its hand across the page. Still fully functional some 250 years after it was built in 1774, the clockwork doll is capable of writing any message of up to 40 characters and spaces at one time.

The Writer, as the doll is called, is the brainchild of a Swiss watchmaker named Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who toured the royal courts of Europe with this and other mechanical figures to drum up business for his line of luxury timepieces. The Writer is an automaton, meaning that it is capable of operating on its own, following instructions encoded into the machinery itself. Packed into the boy’s torso are some 6,000 miniaturized brass components that control the horizontal and vertical motion of the hand, as well as the movements of the eyes and head. The message the automation spells out is determined by three sets of 40 interchangeable brass cams that arguably function as an early programmable computer.

The automaton has been known to write, “I think, therefore I am,” in cheeky homage to the 17th-century French philosopher, Rene Descartes. Occasionally, the message is modified to read, "I do not think...do I therefore not exist?” No one, of course, would seriously argue that the actions of interchangeable brass cams constitute thinking. The mechanical process of writing comes closer to what might be called “muscle memory” in humans. The selection of letters to form words that make up a coherent thought is accomplished by an intelligence other than the wooden-headed boy wielding the pen.

Fast forward 250 years, and artificial intelligence algorithms are now able to select letters to form words and, by all appearances, present coherent thoughts. So-called natural-language generator (NGL) programs routinely crank out news stories, financial summaries and social media posts. A program called GPT-3 has been fed some 300 billion words of text from the Internet and uses it to predict words when given a prompt. It is capable of a coherent response but is best at formulaic tasks rather than producing anything truly original. Thanks to brute processing power, GPT-3 excels at word prediction, but it is easily tripped up when the response calls for basic reasoning.

If Jaquet-Droz’s automaton were a sentient being, would it claim authorship of the words that flowed from its quill pen, or would it recognize that the workings of its brass innards originated with another intelligence? The question is not entirely facetious. Many human writers and poets ask themselves essentially the same thing, even though the space between their ears is presumably not made of wood. They strongly suspect the words that flow from their pens or word processors come from somewhere other than their conscious minds.

The science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury spoke for many creative people when he reported that his books and stories came to him as a surprise. The surprise can turn on anything: a phrase, an image, a sentence, a plot twist, whole pages of dialogue. It can be a character who runs away with the story, or a story that springs full-blown from God knows where. John Milton insisted that Paradise Lost was dictated to him by a “celestial patroness” named Urania. Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Kahn” came to him verbatim in a drug-induced reverie. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”·was inspired by a nightmare that may have been produced by a drug Robert Louis Stevenson was taking to treat his tuberculosis.

The word “inspiration” comes from a Latin root spiritus, meaning “breath” or “spirit.” To be inspired literally means to have something breathed into you. Our lungs don’t manufacture their own oxygen, they breathe it in. For the most part, breathing happens with no conscious effort on our part; in fact, the less control we exercise, the better. The creative process works much the same way. Which is not to say that creative inspiration is as effortless as breathing, but the degree of difficulty is usually proportional to the trouble we make for ourselves in trying to control it.

Computer-generated writing has made giant strides since Jaquet-Droz wowed the royal courts of Europe with a mechanical doll that could scribble lines from Descartes with its goose quill pen. Who knows what technological marvels await in another 250 years? Will we ever get to the point where a machine can refer to itself as a “conscious entity,” as the HAL 9000 computer does in Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey? I have little doubt that some future automaton sitting in English class will be able to compose an essay on “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” that causes far less anguish to the teacher than the scribblings of most of its human counterparts. But in the absence of genuine inspiration, I remain to be convinced that a machine could ever produce something truly inventive. Certainly it is hard to imagine that a latter-day HAL 9000 would report that anything it wrote ever came as a surprise.

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