Will AI wine writing eventually make wine tasting irrelevant?
This is a mineral-driven wine that’s crisp and fresh, with a flinty edge. It is very tangy, with zesty citrus, giving a bright character. It needs time to mature, so wait until late vintage.
That’s a review of one of my favorite $10 wines – the Chateau Bonnet Blanc, a white French Bordeaux. But I didn’t write it, and neither, technically, did any other human wine critic.
Instead, it was written by an artificial intelligence – the Wine Review Generator created by long-time wine industry executive Michael Brill. Brill, who also does tech, software, and AI consulting, wanted to find out if he could “teach” a machine to write tasting notes.
And, for the most part, that’s what he did.
Brill left a comment about last week’s blog post about the future of AI wine writing. That led to our phone conversation this week, where Brill said improved technology has made it possible to create the Chateau Bonnet review with a minimal amount of human programming. All you need, he said, is a database of wine terms, wine regions, grape varieties, and so forth. That information, combined with advances in neural network research that have helped scientists better understand how to program machines to “think,” led to the review software and to the Bonnet review.
In this, Brill said, a machine’s ability to “write” longer and more coherent sentences has improved tremendously. Before, he explained, an AI story might be half readable and half nonsense, and the most it could create was a 10-word sentence. Today, those numbers are 90 and 10 percent, and it can write a readable 10-sentence paragraph.
How the machine does this, needless to say, is incredibly complicated. It makes predictions about what comes next in a sentence based on the words that came before, a process that is much more like writing than previous AI efforts; those were more like filling in a template. Here, the AI has “learned” that a mineral-driven wine is crisp and fresh, and not oaky and flabby, so it picks the former phrase to follow mineral-driven instead of the latter.
Which is why the Chateau Bonnet Blanc effort is not a bad tasting note. It’s mostly accurate (save for the bit about aging) and it conforms to the rules of grammar and the sensibilities of wine. That the machine wrote the review without tasting the wine is impressive, and knowing only the cost and some characteristics, is impressive. And more than a little spooky.
And not just because an AI is cheaper to hire than I am. Brill said advances in machine writing could eventually make product reviews useless. Some of that happens today on Amazon, where it’s not uncommon to see badly written AI reviews praising a product. But the situation could get even worse as AI writing improves.
A top-notch AI could flood Amazon with machine-generated positive (or even negative) reviews, with the resulting effect on sales. Or it might be possible for one restaurant to force another out of business with an AI-written campaign on Yelp.
And who would know the difference?
AI wine writing technology needs to advance past copying a formula, even for something as simple as a tasting note
Will software replace wine writing? We’ve worried about this on the blog, where every advance in artificial intelligence made AI wine writing seem that much more likely. It became especially terrifying after noted journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in the New York Times that some writing “could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.”
Scores are bad enough, but artificial intelligence scores?
Not to worry, though. Two recent reports found that no matter how far artificial intelligence writing has come, it hasn’t come quite far enough, even for AI wine writing.
The New Yorker’s John Seabrook offered the most complete story about AI writing I’ve seen. “Each time I clicked the refresh button,” he wrote, “the prose that the machine generated became more random; after three or four tries, the writing had drifted far from the original prompt. … [I]n a way that reminded me of Hal, the superintelligent computer in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ when the astronauts begin to disconnect its mainframe-size artificial brain.”
That’s more or less the conclusion, too, of the Johnson column in The Economist working off of Seabrook’s essay: “Don’t fear the Writernator,” Johnson said, and so it looks like human wine writing has been saved – for the time being, anyway.
Why was I so worried? Because there have been so many advances in AI writing that it seemed inevitable that something as formulaic as what we do would be turned over to an AI. How difficult would it be to write an algorithm that would parse wine grapes, wine regions, and descriptors to give us what we see all the time in every Wine Magazine? How much cheaper would it be to dispose of wine writers? After all, it’s not like writing a tasting note-style wine review is like writing for the New Yorker.
And, in fact, tremendous progress has been made with tasting note-style writing. As I reported last summer, it’s possible to use basic Python programming skills to come up with formulaic writing like tasting notes thanks to advances in neural network research and how to mimic what the human brain does. I wasn’t able to write reviews for the blog, as I had hoped; my Python skills are too rudimentary. But those more advanced are apparently doing it.
But both Seabrook and the Johnson writer argue that even that simple kind of writing is still a ways off. It’s one thing to teach a machine how to route rush hour traffic, but it’s something completely different to teach it how to write. Mimicking a formula is not writing.
“What eludes computers is creativity,” said Johnson. “By virtue of having been trained on past compositions, they can only be derivative. Furthermore, they cannot conceive a topic or goal on their own, much less plan how to get there with logic and style.”
Which makes me feel a lot better.
More about AI wine writing:
• Winecast 30: Arty, the first artificial intelligence wine writer
• Let the computer write the wine reviews
• Do we really need wine writers?