Why Robots (and Executives) Should Read Fiction

Mark Riedl, who is Associate Professor at Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing, and who conducts research into artificial intelligence, storytelling, and computer games, wrote a blog piece for The Huffington Post a couple of years ago titled “Why Artificial Intelligence Should Read and Write Stories.” In it, he describes how his team is working to enculturate Artificial Intelligence with social norms, customs, values and etiquette so that they are better able to operate within human society. Riedl describes how

in a perfect world, humanity would come with a user manual that we could simply scan into a computer. Instead, what we do have are the collected works of fiction by different cultures and societies, which give us examples to teach AI our culture. This includes the fables or allegorical tales passed down from generation to generation, such as the tale of George Washington confessing to chopping down a cherry tree.

Fictional stories meant to entertain can be viewed as examples of protagonists existing within and enacting the values of the culture to which they belong, from the mundane — eating at a restaurant — to the extreme — saving the world. Instilling AI with narrative intelligence is an essential step to enabling it to understand what matters to humans and how humans respond best — through storytelling.

The Scheherazade system, currently under development at the Georgia Institute of Technology Entertainment Intelligence Lab, learns about everyday human behavior by reading simple stories that illustrate everyday situations, such as eating at a restaurant or going on a date to a movie theater. Scheherazade can create and tell plausible — but fictional — accounts of these everyday activities back to us, demonstrating its understanding.

There is a lot of sociocultural knowledge encoded in something as simple as a story about eating at a restaurant or going on a date. Why don’t we run into the kitchen and start grabbing food? Why do we follow a certain protocol with our boss? Humans don’t think about these questions; they follow the socially and culturally agreed-upon script.

Just as AIs are learning how to drive cars, analyze legal cases, or detect cancers in a scan by ingesting and learning from millions of cases, the idea is to use the countless numbers of novels and short stories to help AIs learn the rules and patterns of human interaction and behavior.

I read once that Bill Gates said he preferred to read non-fiction rather than fiction because he wanted to read things from which he could learn new things. I suspect many business people harbor the bias that novels are for entertainment and not to “learn something.”

Yet I’ve come to believe that well-written fiction — think Jane Austen, Dickens etc. — not only has a lot to teach AIs but humans as well. Executives continually say things like “it’s all about the people,” or “human interactions are what count” etc. but how many spend their time reading Austen versus swiping through Wired magazine or some such publication.

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships. They assigned reading to 1,000 participants and used a variety of Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts. “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others,” said Kidd.

Interestingly, they categorized some fiction as “readerly,” that is, written to make it easy for the reader to understand what is going on without much effort on the part of the reader. “Page-turning” genre novels — suspense, horror, romance, science-fiction, mercenary-action plots etc. — are examples of fiction that apparently does little to enhance or build our understanding and “reading” of others. In many cases they follow a tried-and-true procedure or pattern that requires less active reader engagement. On the other hand so-called “writerly” books that requires the reader to fill in more gaps and to engage in the world of the characters more actively in order to understand what is going on in the novel, these books did correlate with stronger performance in the evaluations.

Their research has led to interesting discussions as to whether reductions in the reading of “writerly” novels by young people is stunting their emotional development, especially in learning how to empathise with people who are “others” to them. But why stop with kids. How many adults are similarly stunted in their ability to more effectively interact with people who do not share their world-view because they do not read the kind of narrative fiction that exercises that muscle?

Executives who want their teams to develop organizational skills might do well to bring in a teacher of literature instead of a guru in organizational development. The irony is that even as we are building-up the capabilities of AIs by exposing them to the great authors, most of us are spending whatever reading time we do have to read, by reading “doorstop” business books and echo-chamber social media feeds.

In case you were wondering there is a classic book on reading books titled “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler.

As for myself, I’m working my way through “Doctor Zhivago.”

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