Car loaded with AI, GPS, clock and a mic writes a Kerouac-inspired novel about four-day road trip

Artificial intelligence and a Cadillac have become buzzworthy book authors penning a Kerouacian novel about a road trip from New York to New Orleans.

The artificial intelligence project was the brainchild of former Obama administration ghostwriter and creative technologist, hacker, Gonzo data scientist and artificial intelligence expert, Ross Goodwin. 

In March 2017, Goodwin outfitted a black Cadillac with a surveillance camera, GPS unit, microphone and internal clock, connecting everything to a portable AI writing machine that collated the incoming data in real time.

Artificial intelligence expert Ross Goodwin created the AI, pairing it with a car and four sensors, that wrote a Kerouacian novel based on a four-day road trip in March 2017

The car was outfitted with a surveillance camera, GPS, clock and microphone to write the book

The car was outfitted with a surveillance camera, GPS, clock and microphone to write the book

Goodwin told The Atlantic that the four sensors located on the car provided data for a system of neural networks that had been ‘trained’ with Foursquare location data and hundreds of books, notably poetry, science fiction and ‘bleak’ literature.   

The literary genres ‘represented the voice I wanted the book to be written in,’ Goodwin said, noting that he wanted the voice to ‘match the terrain of our journey, its historical and literary significance.’ 

The first thing the car AI wrote, upon being started up in Brooklyn, New York, was the moody line, ‘It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.’

During the four-day, more than 1,300 mile journey, the apparatus then churned out, line by line, a scroll of a book manuscript on the printer that was riding along in the car. 

The Cadillac that became the instrument that 'wrote' the novel, 1 the Road

The Cadillac that became the instrument that ‘wrote’ the novel, 1 the Road

The AI's observations were written line by line in real time and printed out on a scroll of paper

The AI’s observations were written line by line in real time and printed out on a scroll of paper

Examples of the moody prose that the car's AI churned out over the course of four days 

Examples of the moody prose that the car’s AI churned out over the course of four days 

The text was made up of a combination of latitude and longitude coordinates from the GPS, descriptions of still images captured by the camera, quotations picked by up the microphone and blurbs from Foursquare.  

As the car headed south, its AI spat out yards and yards more prose which was eventually turned into a book, called 1 The Road, available now through publisher Jean-Boite.   

‘Each sentence in this book is an independent generative process and each occurred in a point in time,’ Goodwin told The Atlantic. ‘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.’

Among the sights and sounds captured during the road trip were a traffic-stopping, right-wing protest, the color of the sky at different times of day and a lengthy pitstop at Urban South Brewery in New Orleans. 

The whole trip was documented on film by a film crew, under the direction of Lewis Rapkin, and distilled down into an 11-minute video which has been posted on Oscillator Media’s YouTube page. 

Although there was no way to predict how the writing experiment would turn out, Goodwin said that he thought the end result was successful and noted that the car became a character, which helped to give the story a continuing narrative which isn’t always the case with other AI-generated fiction.

Goodwin remarked that he thought there might be the ‘possibility that there would be an arc, that it would feel like a novel,’ which he thought happened in the end.

‘Aspects of it feel like a novel,’ he told The Atlantic of 1 the Road, while also noting that it was ‘exhilarating’ that his experiment has helped solve ‘a small part of the problem’ faced by those working on natural-language generation.    

In the documentary video, Goodwin noted that the AI that he has created is ‘not quite human level, this is more like an insect brain that’s learned how to write.’

He went on to describe it as being ‘a machine that when it starts learning it’s just spitting out random messes of letters and spaces and punctuation. No words are even in there. This is a machine that learns by looking at books that humans have written, what words are, what grammar is and how to put together ideas of sensical sounding sentences.’      

Excerpts from 1 The Road 

09:53:46 — ‘It was seven minutes to ten o’clock in the morning, and it was the only good thing that had happened.’

09:54:23 — ‘What is it? the painter asked.’ 

20:48:20 — ‘The sky is dark and the sky is almost streaked with green and the sky stands almost to the surface. The sun is streaked with black sun. A shadow on the ground fell to the floor. The conversation was unseemly when the door opened and the large button was still still.’

12:01:25 — ‘The sky is blue on the floor, which is no longer an old picture of a womens master or a child in an apartment at the lowest street.’ 

12:08:33 — ‘Red brick walls were racked, as the stations were rawing. A small window on the wall was covered with bloody red clouds, and a flash of black radiation in the sun.’

13:42:28 — ‘The time was one forty-two in the afternoon. The street lamps were already closed, and the stone was still still and thick and the floor was still starting up.’

01:33:42 — ‘Red and white flags and the stars were like a curtain of paper like a broad stream of flowers.’

13:40:16 — ‘Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi: a hotel in Biloxie, a high fisherman with a starry face, and a stub of a coat on his face and his shirt looking boldly across his mouth.’

 -From 1 the Road, by Writer of writer Ross Goodwin