Prizewinning AI story shows the future is here

A science fiction story, The Land of Machine Memories, recently received a literary award. What made this tale so compelling was that the title, text, illustrations and even the pen name QuartZen were all the creations of artificial intelligence.


Representational image. PHOTO: MA XUEJING/CHINA DAILY

January 15, 2024

BEIJING – Possible indicator of things to come as science fiction award won by nonhuman

All-powerful robots and artificial intelligence have long been the subjects of science fiction. Now such technology means that fact is stranger than fiction. A science fiction story, The Land of Machine Memories, recently received a literary award.

What made this tale so compelling was that the title, text, illustrations and even the pen name QuartZen were all the creations of artificial intelligence. Yet among the six judges of the competition, just one realized that what they were reading was the product of a machine.

The Land of Machine Memories tells of a relationship between a human and AI. Li Xiao, the protagonist, is an explorer in the meta-verse even as she works as a neural engineer in the real world. In an experiment gone wrong, she loses all of her memories about her family. To recover them, she steps out onto a journey to explore the land of machine memories with her AI friend Neura. Li eventually retrieves her memories, gaining a deeper understanding and experience of the universe.

The novel was created using AI by Shen Yang, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Tsinghua University in Beijing. He says he engaged in 66 rounds of dialogue with an AI program, typing requests and prompts to form a draft text of 43,061 words that eventually produced the prizewinning story of 5,915 words.

The story was awarded second prize at the fifth youth popular science and science fiction competition, organized by the Jiangsu Popular Science Writers Association in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. There were nearly 200 entries, and 90 won awards: six special prizes, 14 first prizes, 18 second prizes and 27 third prizes.

“The aim of the competition is to encourage more people to get involved in creating science fiction novels,” says Fu Changyi, director of the Science Fiction Committee of the Jiangsu Popular Science Writers Association. “It’s mainly for science fiction beginners nationwide aged 14 to 45. College students are the most important group of participants in this competition.”

Fu says he was aware of Shen’s long-term involvement in artificial intelligence research, so he invited him to take part in the competition. Fu kept the fact that The Land of Machine Memories was generated by AI from the judges. “So it was a bit like an experiment.”

For him, the outcome came as a surprise. Three out of the six judges voted for The Land of Machine Memories. By competition rules, works recommended by five judges can win a special prize, and works recommended by three judges can win a second prize.

One of the judges who was impressed by the AI story was Wang Yanzhong, a science fiction novelist. “At first I didn’t realize that it was created by AI. There’s no doubt that AI surpasses many humans in terms of density of knowledge. Compared with the works of beginners, it’s outstanding.”

Another judge, Suo Hefu, also a science fiction novelist, was not as enthusiastic about the novel. He thought the literary quality was weak and that the story was disjointed. He half-jokingly remarks, “Despite this, I still gave it a score of 72, whereas some works by humans got only 27 from me.”

Shen says it took him three hours intermittently to complete the story. Because of a limitation in the length of context that the AI program Shen was using can support, he first generated an outline, enriched the content, determined the idea paragraph by paragraph, and finally put it all together for the final manuscript.

From his very first dialogue with AI, he was surprised by its efficiency. “AI could generate a complete story outline in seconds, based on a few keywords I provided.”

At the end of the story, a discourse about emotion and emptiness created by AI shocked him. The AI was constantly asked to rewrite the ending, and it finally came up with this profound idea: the true source of emotion is, in fact, inner emptiness. There is a point at which Neura says to Li, “emotions are your response to emptiness and your way of trying to fill this bottomless pit. This is also why emotions can never be fully satisfied, because emptiness is eternal”.

Shen says he thinks that this reflects AI’s perception and explanation of human emotions. “I think it’s an emergence of AI, which means that AI has knowledge or behaviors that exceed human regulation.”

Chen Huimin, who received her PhD from the Department of Computer Science and Technology at Tsinghua University, and is currently an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, explains further.

“Emergence is a long-standing concept, generally referring to the phenomenon where complex systems display properties that are not present in any of their individual submodules. When applied to the field of large language models, it means that a model represents a sudden change in capability when its scale reaches a certain level,” Chen says.

“At present, the machine’s learning pattern is based on human data and feedback. It can already perform much better than many ordinary people in certain aspects. And the learning mechanism will keep improving in the future.”

But sometimes AI can be “stupid”, Shen says. When he asked the program to rewrite a paragraph in the style of Czech novelist Franz Kafka, the AI misunderstood his request and generated, “she stood there like a character in Kafka’s works”.

Of course the inability to be always accurate is not the preserve of robots, as attested to by the judges in the contest who failed to discern that they were victims of an elaborate “identity theft”, a robot pretending to be human.

That raises the question: Do you think this article was written by a human being?

The answer is: Indeed it was; AI is not ready to take over everything — yet. But the next story you read might not be.

Yan Bingjie contributed to this story.

scroll to top