Recently, in the midst of a web site clean out (something I recommend anyone who’s had their own site for more than a couple of years), I reacquainted myself with a writing project I started somewhere in the late nineties. It was a chatterbot, a set of web code that attempts to replicate normal conversation, responding to anything you might care to say to it via a input box on a web page. I’d had an idea for a short story based on this vision for artificial intelligence (with the emphasis on ‘artificial’)—a story that subsequently became one of my first published pieces titled ‘Hemmingway’—but I wanted to do more. I had a character, a ‘virtual writer’ named Hemmingway 0.5 and enough coding know-how to muddle through building a web-based chat interface that would more or less do what I wanted. The idea was to create a 'real' Hemmingway 0.5, a fun diversion and a way to bring potential readers to my site. I estimated I could knock it over in about six months or so.
Four years later, with no end in sight, I determined that Hemmingway was as good as I could ever be arsed to complete, so I set him loose. Any initial momentum I had from publishing the short story was long gone so Hemmingway had become an end in itself, another ‘book’, albeit unpublishable in any form other than as a page on a web site.
Now, I’ll admit this was probably not the wisest career move. In a lot of ways I was simply glad to be done with him (more or less) so I plonked Hemmingway on the site with little fanfare and moved on.
Lately though, I’ve begun to reassess. Hemmingway—like most chatterbots—is in fact a beautifully sophisticated deconstruction of the English language. Hemmingway has a vast store of responses matched to potential inputs. When you say something to him, he looks initially for an exact match to respond to and, if none is found, he gradually backtracks through your sentence until he strikes a hit. He can throw your statements back at you, he can remember a few basic things about you, he can modify his responses depending on the context of your conversation. All of this had to be written in code and—most importantly for a writer—all his responses had to be in character.
The result is a wonderfully wonky exercise in character development. Hemmingway is anything but perfect, but after six years developing him, I feel like he’s the most complete character I’ve ever created, even if he is a little grumpy most of the time.
At last month’s Whispers Reading Salon, I read from a story penned much, much later than my foray into chatterbots. But when an audience member congratulated me on the quality of the story’s dialogue, I wondered whether Hemmingway still lurks between the words on my pages and that my four years with him has had far more influence on my storytelling than I usually acknowledge.