An Infinite Number of Monkeys: Human and Machine Essays

I first created this portfolio for the seven essays that I wrote for the Coursera Fantasy-SciFi course - Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, offered by the University of MIchigan in 2012. I'm keeping these essays online as a sentimental reminder of the days when it was humans who wrote the essays assigned for schoolwork and when it was humans who read those essays. Sadly, those days may soon become only an atavistic memory.

In order to better understand the enemy, as it were, and to register my dismay at the plans of edX and other MOOC providers to use robograding software for the evaluation of student writing, I am going to create a robowriter that will autogenerate essays for the Fantasy-SciFi course, suitable for reading by robograders. The Fantasy-ScifFi course will be offered again beginning in June 2013, so I hope to have the software ready by then. I will be submitting my robowritten essays for the class, and I suspect I will receive passing marks. In fact, I will probably receive even higher marks than before, since when I wrote my own essays, my writing was criticized for not being formulaic enough (!).

To get an initial sense of the formulaic types of essays I will be able to generate, you can consider a few robowritten essays below - an admittedly primitive set of essays since I am using only a GoogleDoc Spreadsheet right now (here's the spreadsheet). There are approximately one hundred items with three randomly substituted elements for each item.  This lexical substitution is basically the same substitution drill that students themselves use to defeat TurnItIn and similar plagiarism detection software, although of course my automated system is much quicker (I can generate literally millions of these) and produces more coherent results than a typical thesaurus-wielding student.

This summer, I will choose a programming language (not sure which one yet) in order to employ even more complex algorithms for the robowriter. By using different relational lookup tables, I will be able to vary the themes - the Triple Goddess is just one of dozens of possible formulaic themes (Freudian, Jungian, Marxian, Gramscian, Proppian, alchemical, allegorical, sociological analyses, etc.), along with multiple examples from the readings (here I chose only four Grimm tales, although I could grab quotes from dozens of them), while also covering the readings for every week of the course.


(image by Simon Greig)

... While these all sound of course suspiciously similarly, even my simple spreadsheet generator will produce millions - literally, millions - of essays.