Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write (A Norton Short) (Hardcover)

Literary Theory for Robots: How Computers Learned to Write (A Norton Short) By Dennis Yi Tenen Cover Image
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In the industrial age, automation came for the shoemaker and the seamstress. Today, it has come for the writer, physician, programmer, and attorney.

Literary Theory for Robots reveals the hidden history of modern machine intelligence, taking readers on a spellbinding journey from medieval Arabic philosophy to visions of a universal language, past Hollywood fiction factories and missile defense systems trained on Russian folktales. In this provocative reflection on the shared pasts of literature and computer science, former Microsoft engineer and professor of comparative literature Dennis Yi Tenen provides crucial context for recent developments in AI, which holds important lessons for the future of humans living with smart technology.

Intelligence expressed through technology should not be mistaken for a magical genie, capable of self-directed thought or action. Rather, in highly original and effervescent prose with a generous dose of wit, Yi Tenen asks us to read past the artifice—to better perceive the mechanics of collaborative work. Something as simple as a spell-checker or a grammar-correction tool, embedded in every word-processor, represents the culmination of a shared human effort, spanning centuries.

Smart tools, like dictionaries and grammar books, have always accompanied the act of writing, thinking, and communicating. That these paper machines are now automated does not bring them to life. Nor can we cede agency over the creative process. With its masterful blend of history, technology, and philosophy, Yi Tenen’s work ultimately urges us to view AI as a matter of labor history, celebrating the long-standing cooperation between authors and engineers.

About the Author

Dennis Yi Tenen is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Originally a software engineer at Microsoft, Tenen is now an affiliate at Columbia’s Data Science Institute. He lives in New York City.

Praise For…

[Literary Theory for Robots] is surprising, funny and resolutely unintimidating…Tenen has figured out how to present a web of complex ideas at human scale.

— Jennifer Szalai - New York Times Book Review

Through his use of history and philosophy, Yi Tenen reminds us that technology cannot exist independently of its creators and users, and ultimately it is we humans who hold the final responsibility for technology’s impact on the world. This is a book that makes you a little wiser in realizing that responsibility.
— John Warner - Chicago Tribune

A witty, if challenging, read.
— Nature

Lucid, nuanced, and expert, with a fizzy sense of humor . . . Over these swift 141 pages, Tenen describes a new lineage for machine intelligence, one that absorbs everything from Medieval Islamic astrology and Chomskyan grammar to the industrial manufacture of vermicelli.
— The Baffler

Literary Theory for Robots helps us recognize that over time, the seemingly extraordinary fades into the ordinary, becoming yet another tool through which we think and write in conversation with others.

— Washington Post

Timely and original, this is an essential resource on the history of text generating AI, and its future.
— Publishers Weekly

Intriguing…Yi Tenen, stirring some wit and anecdotes into the story, sets out the material in non-technical terms, making for an entertaining, informative read. An eclectic and erudite tale of how wide-eyed visions become smart, interactive tools.
— Kirkus Reviews

A delightfully fresh perspective on AI. [Tenen] looks back more than a thousand years into literary history to report on an astonishing variety of algorithmic strategies for writing poems, plays, novels, fables, and much more. . . By combining his literary knowledge with a background as a Microsoft software engineer, Tenen brings readers a human-centered way of appreciating technology . . . the final chapter provides valuable guidance for how to think about AI . . . a deeply human endeavor that emerges from a long history and broad collaboration. 
— Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland

Reading this book is like taking a walk in a literary forest. You will see up close trees whose names you never knew and discover paths that lead your mind in new directions. Tenen guides us along the way, by putting in historical context how machines started out as voracious readers and emerged as creative writers.
— Jeannette M. Wing, Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University

Literary Theory for Robots is many things—brainy, chatty, charming, disarming—but, above all, it is great fun to read. Dennis Yi Tenen’s cast of ‘lovely weirdos’ and their wheels, charts, templates, schemas, and links will stay with me for a long time. So will his insistence that intelligence is a social and collective phenomenon, one whose history reveals the human presence behind every machine.

— Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing

Literary Theory for Robots serves as an alternative to the breathless utopian or apocalyptic hallucinations of the tech bros funding the AI revolution, instead offering a highly relatable perspective on thinking machines grounded in history, literature, and lived human experience. Tenen shows that truly understanding the future of our digital augmentation depends not on more STEM but on more liberal arts. This book will be remembered as the moment thinking people realized how to raise better robots: read them good stories.

— Douglas Rushkoff, author of Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires
Product Details
ISBN: 9780393882186
ISBN-10: 0393882187
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: February 6th, 2024
Pages: 176
Language: English
Series: A Norton Short