Brutus the literary computer stabs human authors in the back

John Harlow

ROLL over, Jeffrey Archer. An American computer is writing short stories about human betrayal that readers and literary experts are unable to distingush from the works of living writers.

The computer can produce a story every 15 seconds. At just over £1m, Brutus has cost the Rensselaer Institute in Albany, New York, significantly less than the multi-million-pound advances that more famous writers command.

The most recent story by Brutus, called Betrayal, was slipped in among three others written by American academics and put on an amateur writing site on the internet. Readers were asked to identify which piece had been written by an inanimate object: only a quarter of the 4,000 voters guessed correctly.

Lord Archer will be disappointed to learn that the story many voters thought was his was dismissed as full of clichés, unbelievable and "polluted by purple prose".

Fiction-spinning computers have been a long time coming: since the 1970s several machines have been programmed to write rhyming dirges, but have not fooled anyone into thinking the results were even adolescent-standard poetry.

Cracking the mathematical code that gives an electronic box the size of a domestic refrigerator a grip upon language, syntax and plot devices has taken Selmer Bringsjord, 41, a professor of logic at Rensselaer's mind and machine laboratory, more than seven years.

Bringsjord admits that Brutus is still limited. "Brutus One is only the first version of this program," he said. "Brutus is a good imitator of styles that we feed into it, but so far it can produce only 500-word stories written from a male point of view about betrayal in a university setting."

One of the literary templates fed into the computer was Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, including the scene where he was stabbed to death by his friend Marcus Brutus on the Ides of March in 44BC.

"We wanted styles that could be reduced to mathematical code: we chose hate and betrayal because they are less ambiguous than love or friendship, and a twist in the tale is a simple device," Bringsjord said.

Last week The Sunday Times showed two stories, one by Brutus and one by an American author, to leading English writers and literary agents and asked them to compare the two literary works.

Jilly Cooper, the novelist, correctly identified the computer's work. "If the first one's written by a computer, I want that computer at home. I'm not going to write any more." She picked up on the computer's mention of molten blood, a term she pointed out was odd.

Malcolm Bradbury, the writer and academic, also got it right.

"It's the worst of the two stories," he said. "Often you start out with an idea that has a mechanical quality to it, but at some point in the process of writing the characters become real to you."

Giles Gordon, the literary agent whose clients include Fay Weldon, was astounded to learn he had chosen the wrong story.

"The second one seems to be a million times better. The first one is unrhythmical, it could be written by a scientist," he said.

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