I’m speaking at a tech conference in New York City tomorrow. Yesterday, I had a tantalizingly odd conversation about a bio that someone assumed I had written. So I went to the conference website to look up my profile, and — Oh. My. God:
“He is one of the most successful authors of all times and his books can mesmerize. He is also an entrepreneur and after being so successful he still carries a decent behavior and very down to earth attitude. He is none other than the very talented Robert Reid.”
Self-confidence has a place in a bio. But certain lines should not even be approached. This one, for instance:
“He went to the very popular university called Harvard University for his MBA degree. He has been a superstar with his work. One of his books was named as Architects of the Web created stir in the market and it was outstanding. The book was solely focused on the Silicon Valley and was very well crafted and written by this genius.”
To be perfectly clear, I did not write this bio. It rather seemed to be the work of an anonymous literary critic (one with immaculate tastes, let’s admit). But who?
Some background on what led to this. The conference organizer invited me to participate in an NPR story related to his event. I agreed, so a producer called me for a “pre-interview.” This is like appearing before a show’s Admissions Committee, and I figured I was a long-shot. The conference’s speakers are mostly entrepreneurs with actual products — whereas after a long stint as a tech founder, I’m now a science fiction author who makes cool products up.
Happily, the pre-interview started on a warm note. The producer, it seemed, loved my bio! I recently launched a website connected to an upcoming novel, and it includes an unusually long and chatty background statement — so I figured he was talking about that. But there was something odd about his enthusiasm. He found my bio hysterical. And kind of . . . bold? He asked if I hesitated before posting it, and applauded me for having the guts to go through with it.
Well, hmmm. I don’t find my website bio especially funny. Or (certainly) daring. But as the pre-interview got underway, the subject quickly dropped.
Later, as I was tweaking my site, our odd interchange came back to mind — so I read my bio carefully. Let’s see, I (basically) acknowledge that I was born into foster care. But that’s not gutsy. I mean, we destigmatized that sort of thing way back in the sixties (didn’t we?). I also tease myself for taking half a lifetime to write my first novel. But that’s not exactly thigh-slapping material.
Then it struck me — maybe he was talking about a bio on the conference’s site? And so I found my way to this:
“He was born in the year 1966 on 2nd of October which makes him 48 years old at this moment. At this age he has already established himself as a very successful entrepreneur and a great author. He was born in a place called New York City which lies in New York of United States of America and this makes his nationality American and ethnicity white.”
Um . . . correct on my birthplace. As well as on how New York fits into the nested Russian dolls of geography. And yes — birth here does confer US citizenship. But though I’m personally Caucasian, a rather muddled understanding of transitive properties is betrayed. Further down, we find:
“He has been a superstar with his outstanding world. He has been very involved in social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. He has over 15 hundred followers in Twitter and the number will increase drastically in future. He is very much involved with the site as he has already tweeted 1147 times. He has over seven thousand likes in his official Facebook fan page. His book was nominated for a very big award called Goodreads Choice Award and it was for the category of Best Science Fiction.”
And this passage settles it. The rote regurgitation of Googleable facts is a hallmark of bot-written stories. These bland recitations are now common in sports news and write-ups of earnings reports. And as Wired recently told us, writer-bots are even making their mark on the august pages of the Washington Post. But it’s one thing to read an analysis-free rundown on marketplace action, and quite another to read an artificial mind’s take on your personal life:
“He was dating his girlfriend Morgan Webb before the couple decided to get married. The couple got married and started living as husband and wife. Their relationship is built on trust and mutual understanding and these are the reasons it is still going very strong. It seems like the couple has not decided to have children as details about the children is completely missing from the internet. However their relationship is going pretty strong and this proves there is very less chances of a divorce to occur between them.”
Creepiness aside, it’s nice that so careful a Rob Reid analyst sees little risk of a future divorce. But again, who triggered this? Surely not the conference organizers (it’s an AR conference, not an AI conference)! And didn’t I provision them with a bland Rob Reid bio?
A quick scan of my email revealed that no — I only sent them a headshot. So presumably someone went online, Googled “Rob Reid bio,” and eventually found this:
ArticleBio.com (tagline: Shh!celebrity Gossip) is my new favorite place online. Calvin Klein looks great these days. Far more famous authors than me get less fawning treatment from the site, which feels nice. And though I have no idea who Brendan Moar is, I’m impressed to learn that he has many strings to his bow. The site seems entirely bot-generated, having outsourced even its selection of subjects to a woolly-headed non-human (in addition to me and Mr. Moar, “celebrities” chosen for inclusion include someone “highly known throughout the world for being the former wife of an American TV personality Jim Cramer.”)
Much as mass grows infinite when objects reach the speed of light, perhaps articles grow infinite when their cost reaches zero. And should that threshold be reached, perhaps the Web will contain . . . all of the articles. The total possible output of a boundless hall of monkeys hammering randomly on keyboards. The very alphabet — in superposition.
Where might this take us? In my own novel, I speculate about a social AI called “Cyrano” who zaps off flirtatious texts on behalf of online daters who can’t be bothered to do so themselves. Because it’s science fiction, Cyrano works well (quite a bit too well). Whereas the bot behind ArticleBio is in no imminent danger of seducing anyone (although I am thoroughly charmed by how doggone nice it is about everyone).
Perhaps I find all of this fun because it gives me a smug sense of job security. I mean, my new book is 547 pages long. No way could an AI’s endearing boo-boos hold anyone’s attention for that long! Whereas human writers are a completely different story. Particularly those of us labeled “genius” by no less an authority than ArticleBio.com.
I mean . . . right?