Books by a Robot‽ An Investigation Into an Amazon.com Mystery

By Rebecca J. Rosen
One author on Amazon has more than 100,000 books to his name. Who is he? Do these books seem like the work of a human?

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Can a robot write a book? Well, okay, maybe not write, but at least cull and compile sources from the Internet?

That is the question mused over by author Pagan Kennedy in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, provoked by her discovery of a certain Lawrence M. Surhone, an "author" on Amazon with more than 100,000 books to his credit. These "books" are not original content but printed-and-bound Wikipedia articles.

Who is this Mr. Surhone? Is he possibly a real human? Even his name, Kennedy says, sounds like something out of a Vonnegut novel. She traces him to a branch of a German publishing house, VDM, located in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. She never speaks with him, but a managing director tells her that about 40 presumably human editors work on its Wiki-books projects and that the company sold 3,000 last year. You may ask yourself, who would buy printed Wikipedia articles? That is a very good question. 

Perhaps humans do work on these titles, but a quick perusal on Amazon can give you a flavor of their distinctly robotic touch. Below, a gallery of some of our favorites from Mr. Surhone's oeuvre.

Image: Paul Fleet/Shutterstock.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/10/books-by-a-robot-an-investigation-into-an-amazoncom-mystery/246996/