Literary Masterpiece Q&A with AI

A sort of chatbot "Director's Commentary" for books
Now You Can Read the Classics With A.I.-Powered Expert Guides
Margaret Atwood and John Banville are among the authors who have sold their voices and commentary to an app that aims to bring canonical texts to life with the latest tech.

Great opening here:

For the past year, two philosophy professors have been calling around to prominent authors and public intellectuals with an unusual, perhaps heretical, proposal. They have been asking these thinkers if, for a handsome fee, they wouldn’t mind turning themselves into A.I. chatbots.

While this sounds dystopian, what the creators of Rebind are trying to do is leverage AI to augment a reading experience. While reading about it, my mind kept drifting towards the idea of a "director's commentary" (a concept I've long been fascinated by in mediums beyond film) for books and sure enough, they bring up that very concept in their introductory video. Of course, the difference here is that this isn't the actual director/author of the book, because they're focused on out-of-copyright works where the authors are going to be long-since deceased. Instead, they pick other literary experts on a book to interact with – again, in AI-form.

Mr. Kaag and Mr. Martin selected the authors who would offer commentary. They spent up to 20 hours interviewing each of these “Rebinders,” as they call them, about their chosen texts, trying to cover every possible question a lay reader might have. The recorded interviews were then fed into A.I. software.

To me, this is much less interesting as a companion when first reading a book and instead far more interesting for books you wish to re-read. Again, that's similar to a director's commentary track on a film, which you certainly wouldn't listen to in your first watch of a movie.1 But movies, simply by their much shorter time-bound nature are also more easily re-watchable than books are re-readable. So yes, beyond the copyright element, it's smart to focus on classics.

There is a sense in literary circles that artificial intelligence is in opposition to art and the humanities. This is, after all, technology that some believe might nudge out writers and teachers.

The authors who have worked with Rebind allowed their voices to be cloned and agreed to let their words be manipulated by A.I.

Asked if he had reservations about that, Mr. Banville said: “My initial reaction was deep suspicion, of course. You read a book in your hand and you read it line by line, page by page. But this is a wonderful way to get people to read classic books and not be afraid of them.”

This all has a bit of Masterclass mixed with another startup, LIT (which produces "videobooks" that are sort of like visual summaries of books but in the author's own words) mixed with Genius (the artist formerly known as 'Rap Genius'). The AI element here obviously allows this to scale in some ways, though I'd be curious how well they can scale the input element here – the actual interviews with the non-author writers that make up the commentary. Eventually, perhaps people could upload their own commentary to be cut-up and AI'd. Though there would have to be some guardrails there, of course.

Anyway, I remain intrigued by AI tools that actually augment creative experiences rather than replace them. To some, this will still all sound blasphemous, but it also feels inevitable that at some point all the interviews with an author will be collected and distilled in a way to be able to ask questions about their work. It won't work for Shakespeare, but it could be interesting for a number of more contemporary works.

1 Though I suppose it could be an interesting tool at the end of a chatper of a book even on first read...