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On this road trip, the car wrote a novel

Retracing Kerouac’s route, a gonzo data scientist created a surreal work of AI-driven fiction

By Tony Rehagen

In March 2017, Ross Goodwin toted his laptop from his Brooklyn apartment into the back seat of a rented black Cadillac. The destination was New Orleans, some 1,300 miles away; the objective was to create the next great American novel, a loosely-reality-based travelogue in the style of Jack Kerouac or Tom Wolfe. As Goodwin and his party departed — his sister in the Cadillac with him, while a documentary film crew trailed them in a van — the book’s first line scrolled across Goodwin’s computer screen and on an attached receipt printer: “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.”

That elegant sentence is probably no more cryptic than much of Kerouac’s spontaneous, amphetamine-driven prose. Just don’t ask Goodwin, or anyone else in the car, or anyone else on the planet, to definitively explain it. The passage wasn’t really written by a human — it was written by the car.

More specifically, the words were composed by artificial intelligence, based on Goodwin’s homespun modifications to the sleek luxury sedan. He’d placed a magnetic domed surveillance camera on the trunk lid to take in the sights of the road trip, affixed a small GPS sensor to the roof to log the location, and hung a microphone from the ceiling to pick up conversation inside the car. All three devices were wired into Goodwin’s laptop. There, the data was time-stamped and processed by a series of artificial neural networks that Goodwin had trained on information from the location-sharing app Foursquare and hundreds of volumes of fiction.

En route, Goodwin’s program periodically pinned the time and location, referred to the Foursquare data set, and tried to pair its own literary description to what the camera and mic were seeing and hearing. After four days on the road, the result was a continuous scroll of receipt paper — an unintentional echo of Kerouac’s original manuscript, which was a roll of taped-together tracing paper — containing what might be the first novel ever written by artificial intelligence.

Released in 2018 by French publishing house Jean Boîte Éditions, the finished novel, dubbed 1 the Road, is almost completely unedited, riddled with typos, choppy in flow, and probably as audacious as anything the Beat Generation ever dreamed of. The book is also a harbinger of a wild and provocative future in which AI is used to blaze new frontiers in poetry and literature. “The best part of it,” says Goodwin, “is that nobody lost their minds on acid.”

Goodwin, 33, describes himself as a creative technologist, hacker, gonzo data scientist, and artificial intelligence expert. “People mistake me for an engineer,” he says. “But I’m an artist. Scientists and engineers prove things. Artists ask questions; we don’t answer them.”

The question Goodwin is asking with 1 the Road is: Can AI produce literature? But, as promised, the project doesn’t answer that query — not really. The machine composed the words and produced the copy, but it didn’t have the inspiration. The sparks inside the computer are not really creative. The novel’s cover describes Goodwin as a “writer of writers.” On the back, the publisher explains that “1 the Road is a book written using a car as a pen.” The jury-rigged Cadillac might have technically written the book, but Goodwin programmed the Cadillac. “I think of myself as a writer and photographer,” says Goodwin. “I’m just an artist using the most cutting-edge tools available.”

From a young age, Goodwin’s tech and literary interests were intertwined. His first love was his Intel Pentium 500 desktop. He grew up on the internet in the 1990s, learning HTML and creating his first website, about Hummer trucks and SUVs, at age 7. He memorized much of Encyclopedia Encarta and studied train schedules from Moscow.

“A tree in the back was silent and soft and melancholy.”

from 1 the Road

Growing up in the East Bay region near San Francisco, Goodwin also gravitated toward the Beat Generation of writers that called that city home in the 1950s. Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti walked those streets and frequented bookstores, bars, and cafes that still stand as landmarks to a bygone counterculture. Goodwin’s aunt, famed magazine photographer Annie Leibovitz, was friends with some of them.

“The Beats had a lot of demons with their angels — many were misogynists and racists,” says Goodwin. “Even though those guys were shitheads, I still idolize their bravado and how brave they were. They wrote like truckers on speed.” (Some of them were on speed.) Around age 14, Goodwin abruptly decided that computers were for nerds. He was going to be a writer.

But his own literary journey took an un-Kerouacian detour through MIT, where he studied economics. In his early 20s, he spent a year as a ghostwriter for President Barack Obama and two years crafting policy for the Treasury Department. Finally, in 2012, Goodwin left the government and began to apply that background in math and writing to his childhood passions. He learned to code and developed programs that could imitate his favorite authors. He enrolled in grad school at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

There, Goodwin wrote a fiction-generating algorithm that produced a 728-page novelization based on a 2014 CIA report on the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay. For his master’s thesis, entitled “Narrated Reality,” he threw a compass, a punch clock, and a camera into a bookbag and walked around New York while his artificial neural networks cranked out associative poetry. He also designed a “word camera” that could take a photograph and produce related text in 15 seconds, and in 2017, he hired a gaming-PC fabricator in Biloxi, Mississippi, to build the thing. That’s when he got the idea to drive down south, pick up the camera personally, and put his fiction-generating algorithm to the ultimate test on the road.

Goodwin decided to drive beyond Biloxi, all the way to New Orleans, in homage to the journey from New York to NOLA made by Dean Moriarty, Sal Paradise, and Dean’s girlfriend, Marylou, early in On the Road. Instead of Dean’s old Hudson, Goodwin opted for a new Cadillac. Since the car would be tricked out with Back to the Future wires, cameras, and other esoteric add-ons, he wanted an ordinary car that was less likely to arouse suspicion from authorities. (Also, he says he couldn’t get a Crown Vic.) Google, interested in Goodwin as well as his tech, helped pay for the car rental and the camera. The rest went on Goodwin’s credit cards.

In preparation for the journey, Goodwin trained his neural networks on almost 200 handpicked books with about 60 million total words, divided into three categories: Poetry, science fiction, and what Goodwin calls “bleak” writing. He purposefully avoided Kerouac and other works he considered too on-the-nose.

While others drove, Goodwin sat in the back seat with his laptop and 22 rolls of paper totaling 2,794 feet — enough for roughly a million printed words. He debugged the machine as necessary and monitored the output, watching for the voice to get stale, at which point he plugged in a different corpus of material from which the AI could draw.

The results were fascinating. Often, the machine would lead with the computer’s time. (“It was seven minutes to ten o’clock in the morning, and it was the only good thing that happened.”) Other times, it used an image recognition network to try to describe what the camera captured. (“A tree in the back was silent and soft and melancholy.”) Sometimes it was Foursquare’s turn (“Uchee Shooting Range: a gun range in Auburn and the same stars he had not yet seen before…”), or the GPS just spat out the coordinates verbatim (“32.014394555 N, -86.519401138 W, at 343.65814748 feet above sea level…”).

Along the way, bits of conversation between the passengers worked their way in through the interior microphone. For instance, Goodwin’s sister, Beth, is a food writer, and she talked about the industry, so the words “farm” and “table” appear frequently (“The way the poor kids sent out their fathers and the children was a stars on the table”). The computer even inserted characters, such as an enigmatic painter who appears in the third line and recurs throughout the narrative.

Goodwin did almost no editing, letting the machine speak for itself. The result is an uneven, abstract, but often strangely recognizable look at the byways and backroads of the eastern and southern United States, as viewed through the side window of any car or Google Earth. There are lots of roadside landmarks: trees, gas stations, baseball fields, bridges, and Waffle Houses. The tone is passive and mechanical enough to allow readers to project their own experiences onto the text, either helplessly witnessing a mundane passage between two points or exploring, wide-eyed, an oft-overlooked part of Americana. (“The Great Pee Dee River Bridge: a bridge in Florence and a muddy tree like the soldiers had shrieked at the universe with a commotion and relentless bursts of fallen things.”) The mechanical narrator — the car — is a versatile lens.

The journey ended on March 28, 2017, at 12:26:02 p.m. The last, ominous entry reads: “A white line on the floor stood open, and the boys were standing in the doorway.

Upon Goodwin’s return, his project met with a mixed reaction. The engineers and programmers and techies embraced the experiment as a moonshot. To them, Goodwin was a pioneer, taking methodology that had previously only been used to spit out short passages, blurbs, and poetry, and taking aim at a novel — human writing at its largest and most complex scale. Google made good on its initial investment and enlisted Goodwin to work as a creative technologist in its Artists and Machine Intelligence Program, which works to advance machine learning and augmented reality.

Goodwin’s project made less of an impact on the literary and artistic world. He had to go all the way to France to find someone to publish 1 the Road. No book reviews ensued in The New Yorker, or The New York Times, or really anywhere else. The book did score an article in The Atlantic, with a subhead that put the word “novel” in quotation marks.

So, can an AI write a novel? One can look at 1 the Road and see that the answer is probably: not quite yet. The book exists, 143 pages sitting between two hardback covers, on at least several bookshelves. And while its jerky prose, abstract subject matter, purely incidental characters, and overall lack of story arc might not fit the traditional mold of Western literature, Ulysses and Infinite Jest aren’t exactly easy reads, either.

Even in the short interval since Goodwin’s road trip, the AI has improved. In 2020, a new language generator call GPT-3 penned an entire op-ed for The Guardian with only the instructions: “write a short op-ed,” “keep the language simple and concise,” and, “focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” But even GPT-3, like Goodwin’s word-car AI, could only regurgitate a different permutation of the data that humans have fed it. (“I simply do not think enough about human violence to be overly interested in violence,” GPT-3 assured its readers.)

“There are still sentences using the English language that you’ve never seen,” says Janelle Shane, an optics research scientist and AI researcher who has written for The New York Times and The Guardian. “But if all the machine has seen is 50 op-eds opening with a quote from Stephen Hawking, that’s what it’s going to produce. That’s the challenge: How do you make it produce something that doesn’t sound human? We have a lot of humans who can write boring op-eds; we’ve got that covered.”

That’s precisely where Goodwin believes AI as literature is heading. He says that he thinks AI will continue to improve in word generation to the point where machines can handle utilitarian prose, the simple words we need to educate us and keep us informed. That, he thinks, will free up human writers to pursue the real cutting-edge art. He calls it literature’s “photography moment.” In the early days of photography, he says, when people were still making their own tin-type cameras and daguerreotypes, people worried that the new contraptions might eliminate the need for human painters — and bring an end to painting as an art. Instead, many artists steered away from portraiture and realist landscapes and pushed art further into the abstract and impressionistic.

“Humans have essentially been telling the same 10 stories forever,” says Goodwin. “It’s really obvious that there aren’t that many original writers anymore. That’s what I hope we see: truly unique novels written by people who previously couldn’t, because they lacked the capacity or ability. That AI will enable them to tell new stories.”

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Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis.


Illustration by Martín Elfman


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