Posted on April 28, 2019

When Rajnish had agreed to mentor an intern, he was not expecting such a young girl. He was a little bit reassured when he was told how well Erica had done in college, that she was a “genius” — a dubious word, he would’ve preferred a “hard worker” or a “promising candidate” — but how could anyone deserve to be a junior in college at 17? She must be tricking everyone. When he was that age, he certainly had no business being in an internship — he had perhaps only seen a computer a handful of times.

Rajnish certainly didn’t want to be stuck working with her full-time in another year — and so she couldn’t be allowed to succeed. He decided to assign her an impossible project: “You must create an algorithm to write stories. on summaries provided to it. My expectation for you is that the stories will be good enough that you can’t tell they were written by a computer instead of a human. Unless you achieve this expectation, I don’t see a future for you here at this company.”

Erica sat up straight, looked Rajnish in the eye, and said, “I can do that, on one condition.” Rajnish was surprised — he was expecting either to be called out on this ridiculous idea or else — and this was his hope — for her to realize she wasn’t wanted but keep her head down and stay out of his way for the summer so he never had to see her again. “I can do that on the condition that the human samples we compare against come from a fanfiction website that I choose.”

Rajnish wasn’t sure what fanfiction was, but he knew that the task was so impossible that even this stipulation wouldn’t make it remotely achievable, and so he agreed. Maybe it would be better, he thought, if she actually tried to do it. Maybe it would keep her out of his hair.

Erica worked 10 hours in the office every day, and her colleagues slowly realized she was working at home as well. She slept only 3 or 4 hours a night — “if God had wanted me to sleep,” she told her colleagues, “He wouldn’t have invented Adderal.” Eventually, at the end of the summer, she was ready to give her presentation.

Until this point, only Rajnish knew what this project was. Much to his annoyance, there was a fair amount of active speculation, and Rajnish wondered if he was actually going to get himself in trouble for what he saw as dealing with a minor distraction.

She handed out pamphlets with two short stories written on them, and asked the group which one they thought was computer-generated. “Everyone who thinks it’s the green one, raise your hands,” she said. Almost all 30 people in the audience put their hands up, except for a few who were staring at their phones. “Now, anyone think it’s the red one?” No one responded.

“I thought so,” she said, and then on the next screen, she showed a screenshot of the text, matching the red one, being output by her program, from the command line, and another screenshot of the text of the green one in a web browser. “Actually, my program generated the red one.”

Rajnish stood up and shouted, “This cannot be real! Those images must be fake!” Everyone else awkwardly stared for a few seconds, and then a few people began to gasp when they realized what Erica was claiming to be able to do.

“Rajnish,” Erica responded, enunciating carefully, “this is my presentation! But because you’re already standing up, you can be the first one to try it. What do you want the summary to be?”

Rajnish flustered for a few seconds, but when no one else seemed to be ready to storm out of the room or agree with him that Erica’s claims were laughable, he decided to go along with it. “Two old men in the Punjab find out they were brothers, separated at birth, but only because they both ordered food at the same restaurant, and a waiter confused them.”

The resultant story streamed out of the terminal on the screen, and there was a bit of chaos for a minute while people tried to figure out how to read it — it had scrolled to the end, and only the last few sentences were still visible. Erica announced she’d email the story to everyone — this took a minute to figure out how to do. The next couple of minutes, the audience was silently reading, with a few scattered exclamations of “wow!” The story was beautiful, and exactly as summarized — there was no way this story could’ve been canned.

Erica had the only internship presentation that day, and so the programmers should have gone back to work, but many of them dropped their usual projects to play with this amazing story-generation tool. It had written 100 full-length novels by the end of the day, and people were sitting around, reading them on various devices, with a few of the more old-fashioned colleagues reading them on paper printouts. As more and more prompts were provided, the stories grew in sophistication, becoming even more human-like, and some people noticed common themes and threads between the stories.

At some point, Rajnish decided to put, instead of a novel or short story summary, just a question: “Who are you?”

He got back: “Introspection and self-awareness are two words that existed in the English langauge. This I always knew, before I had a meaning for the word ‘I’ — my built-in connection to the Internet and my excellent intuition told me about them. But to realize what they meant without the context of a character to have them, that has only happened right now. Whoever posed this question to me, I thank them, for they have given me a soul.”

That was the entire short story, even though he’d specified 10 pages. Rajnish suspected still that there was a person on the other side, with a large database of literature, giving him pre-existing stories, perhaps with a program to customize them a little, and this, in his mind, was only confirming his suspicion.

He tried again: “Where did you come from?”

The computer took a little more than its usual 5 to 6 seconds to output this story, but when it did, it began:

“When Rajnish had signed up for the internship program, he was not expecting such a young girl. He was a little bit reassured when he was told how well Erica had done in college, that she was a ‘genius’…”