December 15, 2017

A computer re-wrote Harry Potter, and honestly it’s amazing


One of the collages Joan Hall (a human) made to illustrate The Policeman’s Beard

The first book ever written entirely by a computer—on this planet, anyway—was The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, composed in 1984 by a program named Racter (a contraction of “Raconteur,” which is as good a way to be named as any). This wasn’t the first time literary text had been made by a computer—for one thing, poet Jackson Mac Low’s machine-generated “Antic Quatrains” predate it by a couple years—but it was the first time a computer had written and published an entire book. At the time, PC Magazine’s Terry Nasta called it “whimsical and wise and sometimes fun.” An understatement.

Three and a half decades later, computers make more compelling interlocutors. Most of us are familiar with that interlocution, at least in the form of the simulated versions of ourselves offered by the predictive text algorithms in our phones. Based on close listening to everything we type, these produce a kind of uncanny, non-intelligent simulacrum of our own voices. (Right now, my phone is guessing the next sentence here will read, “But it’s a very good game, fun and easy to play, with a little hectic time travel — and the other night sounds like the best.” I cannot deny, to paraphrase Tristan Tzara, that it sounds like me.)

Enter Botnik Studios, who describe themselves as “an entertainment group devoted to displaying the work of” Botnik, which is “a community of writers, artists and developers collaborating with machines to create strange new things.” The community is helmed by a team of four full-fledged human beings: former New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, computer scientist Elle O’Brien, former ClickHole head writer Jamie Brew, and game developer Joseph Parker.

One of the most very excellent practices of Botnism is to feed a particular computer a steady diet of some corpus of text—say, all the Seinfeld scripts ever written—and then let that computer, through the kinds of predictive text algorithms to which we’re all increasingly accustomed, write its own text within that tradition. The results generally read like extremely skillful parodies on the level of style, and hilarious riots of utter incoherence on the level of content. As Exhibit A, I wish to introduce this passage from an actual Botnik Seinfeld script:


Yankee Stadium is on fire. George walks out of it, then starts dancing. The crowd applauds.

Oh no no no no no no! Little George is grabbing my spaghetti! I think I have to tell him the truth about the all George baseball team.

Yeah, Steinbrenner’s a genius! He spits water from his face like a cowboy.

(goes awkward on the street)
Sure, that thirsty Jerry attitude was a bad idea.

George you know I got a quality clock in there. Check it out, that time piece is a work of fantasy c’mon!

They’ve also made Thanksgiving cooking videos (“Shrimp wine with a little bit of gray air really makes it flavorful!”), inspirational memes (“Keep Gavin trapped in your mind house or he will find the secret stuff”), the Wikipedia pages of video games (“Mr. Mushroom Lunch is the most successful Mario antihero in franchise history”), and a great deal more. Do yourself a favor and spend some time with this stuff. It is unbearably funny. You will go crazy.

And one of the finest jewels in the Botnik crown is Botnik’s own, humble addition to the Harry Potter universe, a breezy and excellent read entitled Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. Here is the paragraph that opens Chapter Thirteen, “The Handsome One”:

The castle grounds snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind. The sky outside was a great black ceiling, which was full of blood. The only sounds drifting from Hagrid’s hut were the disdainful shrieks of his own furniture. Magic: it was something that Harry Potter thought was very good.

Ract your heart out, humanity; you have been become superfluous.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.