When an AI Goes Full Jack Kerouac
A computer has written a “novel” narrating its own cross-country road trip.
On March 25, 2017, a black Cadillac with a white-domed surveillance camera attached to its trunk departed Brooklyn for New Orleans. An old GPS unit was fastened atop the roof. Inside, a microphone dangled from the ceiling. Wires from all three devices fed into Ross Goodwin’s Razer Blade laptop, itself hooked up to a humble receipt printer. This, Goodwin hoped, was the apparatus that was going to produce the next American road-trip novel.
A former ghostwriter for the Obama administration, Goodwin describes himself as “a writer of writers.” Using neural networks, he generates poetry, screenplays, and, now, literary travel fiction. I first encountered his work when his algorithms transformed the Senate’s 2014 torture report into a novel. In Narrated Reality, his master’s thesis at NYU, Goodwin loaded his backpack with devices (a compass, a punch clock, and a camera) that fed their data into long short-term memory (LSTM) neural networks as he walked around the city, churning out weird associative poetry. A sample: “All the time the sun / Is wheeling out of a dark bright ground.” So, when a machine hacker in Biloxi finished fabricating a custom piece of hardware for him, Goodwin decided to upgrade his nascent AI and take it cross-country.
The aim was to use the road as a conduit for narrative experimentation, in the tradition of Kerouac, Wolfe, and Kesey, but with the vehicle itself as the artist. He chose the New York-to-NOLA route as a nod to the famous leg of Jack Kerouac’s expedition in On the Road. Underneath the base of the Axis M3007 camera, Goodwin scrawled “Further.”
Along the way, the four sensors—the camera, the GPS, the microphone, and the computer’s internal clock—would feed data into a system of neural networks Goodwin had trained on hundreds of books and Foursquare location data, and the printer would spit out the results one letter at a time. By the end of the four-day trip, receipts emblazoned with artificially intelligent prose would cover the floor of the car. They’re collected in 1 the Road, a book Goodwin’s publisher, Jean Boîte Éditions, is marketing as “the first novel written by a machine.” (Though, for the record, Goodwin says he disagrees it should bear that distinction—“That might be The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed by a program from the ’80s,” he tells me.) Regardless, it is a hallucinatory, oddly illuminating account of a bot’s life on the interstate; the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meets Google Street View, narrated by Siri.
On the day they were set to embark, Goodwin and his travel companions—his sister Beth, his fiancée Lily Beale-Wirsing, his friend Nora Hamada, Kenric McDowell and Christiana Caro of Google, and a small film crew led by Lewis Rapkin, who would follow along in a van to document the journey—gathered near Ross’s Bushwick apartment to rig the system onto the Cadillac. (Google, which had become interested in his work at NYU, footed the bill for the car rental and the camera—a year later, the search giant would hire him to work on its Artists and Machine Intelligence program.)
“The reason it’s a Cadillac, by the way,” Goodwin tells me in a phone interview, “is we wanted it to be done in an authoritarian vehicle, and we couldn’t get a Crown Vic.” He worried that if passersby saw a car loaded with home-brew electronics, wrapped in wires, they might mistake it for a terrorist vehicle; instead, he wanted to nod to the tacit acceptance that federal agencies routinely carry out such surveillance. “I wanted people to see it as something associated with government officials.” Mission accomplished, apparently: Goodwin says he learned later that as they were preparing to leave, a nearby bodega owner saw the car and the surveillance equipment and decided to keep his shop closed for the day. “It’s not an ad for Cadillac,” he laughs. “In fact, they turned us down.”
The machine received its first jolt of inspiration just as soon as Goodwin and his traveling companions fired it up in Brooklyn. It wrote: “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.” For an opening sentence in a book about the road, it’s apropos, even poignant.
“This is a beautiful line in my opinion,” Goodwin says. “In this case, the seed was the time—everything that comes after ‘nine seventeen’ was generated from the time.” What had happened, essentially, was this: The clock registered the time, which sent the data into the LSTM neural network that Goodwin had trained on one of three corpora of literature. (Each was approximately 120 megabytes, or 20 million words; one was comprised mostly of poetry, one of science fiction, and one that Goodwin describes only as “bleak” literature. “Together, they represented the voice I wanted the book to be written in,” Goodwin tells me, “one that I thought would match the terrain of our journey, its historical and literary significance. I did not want to train on Kerouac or other American road-trip material directly, as that felt like it might be cheating in a way.” Goodwin could swap them out at will.) Letter by letter, the neural net, learning from its corpus, would eke out a new sentence. “The lexicon completion is the same way we translate English to French,” Goodwin says. So, the ensuing words were a product of the system’s literature-informed understanding of that time in the morning.
Throughout the journey, data from the different sensors produced sentences of varying poeticism: Latitude and longitude coordinates were printed verbatim and appended with mysticism (“35.415579526 N, -77.999721808 W, at 154.68504432 feet above sea level, at 0.0 miles per hour, and the first flat of the story in the country is the first in part of the world”). Images were converted into ghostly prose (“A ski lift business for the last time the train was already being darkened and the street was already there”). Locations recognized from the Foursquare dataset were surrealistically remarked upon (“Eagles Nest Diner: a american restaurant in Goldsborough or the Marine Station, a place of fish seemed to be a man who has been assembled for three days”). Dialogue from the mic was captured and mutated (“I somewhat when i’m on why i didn’t get hurt yeah my car is an every down i know?”).
The AI translated the sights and sounds of aging East Coast infrastructure, a right-wing protest that halted traffic for a while, the passing flora and fauna, and, presumably, the stop at a convenience store where Goodwin tells me he had to pick up an extra power adapter for the cigarette lighter because his system wasn’t getting enough power.
“Each sentence in this book is an independent generative process and each occurred in a point in time.” Goodwin says. “They were connected by the road trip and a car that contained the sensors dictating what it was narrating, and that’s what creates the art. All of it corresponded to what it was seeing.” The process is not unlike Kerouac’s, who famously mythologized his opus by saying he’d written it in three weeks, in a Benzedrine-fueled, in-the-moment dash to transfer detail and observation onto a single roll of paper.
Lewis Rapkin, who produced a short film based on the journey, tells me in an email that the AI “was a bit unsettling at times.” Especially early on, they all closely watched the system’s output, guessing at its meaning, its process. “Is the machine associating this abandoned factory with the history of people coming from the countryside to the city for factory work?” Rapkin says. “Is it recognizing that this is just the first story of the country, and technology is going to be the second? Is it associating our urban blight with the Middle Ages because our country is falling apart and looks like something centuries old?”
Goodwin clearly views the four-day journey as a success, even a surprising one. “I thought there was a possibility that there would be an arc, that it would feel like a novel,” he tells me, “and that’s what happened. Aspects of it feel like a novel.” He says the fact that the car itself serves as a character gives it a sense of continuity that much AI-generated fiction lacks.
“I’ve read the whole thing, in case anyone’s curious,” Goodwin says, laughing. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.” So do I, actually. I sat down to read the whole thing in one sitting, as Goodwin suggested I do, and more or less succeeded. I’m not sure there’s a cohesive arc in any classic narrative sense—but there is plenty of pixelated poetry in its ragtag assemblage of modern American imagery. And there are some striking and memorable lines—“the picnic showed a past that already had hair from the side of the track,” struck me, for one.
1 the Road reads as if a Google Street View car were narrating a cross-country journey to itself. This approach is compelling because it offers an opportunity to commune, for a few hours, with the vast network of data-collecting vehicles—drones, cars, devices—that now crawl our geography. “Much like the American literary road-trip books that inspired this project, it’s about capturing the time and place, and right now we’re in a time where we’re pretty confused and amazed by AI, so it captures that wonder and confusion,” Rapkin says. “Is it profound or is it nonsense? It’s both.”
It’s a tour of the built and noisy world, as interpreted by those machines. It’s surveillance-technology fiction, written by the same species of technology that is conducting the surveillance and processing the data. What might an AI author teach us about a world already so totally sculpted and impacted by the kind of data it’s gathering that a human writer can’t?
Goodwin seems committed to finding out. “This is very much an imperfect document, a rapid prototyping project. The output isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s a human novel, or anywhere near it,” Goodwin says, but “there are characters in it, which is really strange.” A mysterious painter, for instance, appears in the third line to ask, “What is it?” It continues to show up throughout: “A body of water came down from the side of the street. The painter laughed and then said, I like that and I don’t want to see it.” Insofar as it’s tempting to locate the writer (or writer of the writer) in the work—as we inevitably do in road-trip fiction—the painter seems the most logical stand-in for Goodwin himself. “I could have made a big start off,” the machine-generated painter says at one point, making it easy imagine it’s talking about the project itself, nodding to new frontiers. “I want to go away from here, the time has come.”