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There’s been a lot of Harry Potter fan fiction, both earnest and satirical, throughout the years, but the best ripoff of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga came out this week. And it was written by a bot. Well, sort of.
Jamie Brew spent a lot of 2016 using predictive text to create comedy, generating warped versions of political debates, recipes, Craigslist ads, and more. Brew, then an editor at ClickHole, feeds raw material into his predictive text app. The software learns from what it reads and spits out suggestions the same way your Android or iPhone suggests the next word in a text. Brew takes the best sentences and rearranges them to make a story. (For more on how this works, read our interview with Brew from last year.)
He’s so good at it that he left ClickHole to start a company, Botnik, that owns his software tools and publishes his predictive text content. This Harry Potter chapter, “The Handsome One,” is the most popular thing they’ve released so far.
To train the bot for this new chapter, Botnik fed it all seven of the existing Harry Potter novels, which gives it the tone and vocabulary of an Uncanny Valley robot version of Rowling. A Row-bot, if you will. (Sorry.)
On Twitter, “The Handsome One” has been called “a damn masterpiece” and “the best parody of Harry Potter ever written.” And it’s hard to argue with lines like “I’m Harry Potter. The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!” and “The password was BEEF WOMEN.”
I'm sorry but an AI just wrote the best parody of Harry Potter ever written— lena raine (@kuraine) December 12, 2017
It’s even inspiring fan art, just like the original novels and the most popular fanfics.
It’s tempting to think that bots have defeated us at writing fiction, the same way they’ve defeated us at chess (masters have described Google’s latest chess AI as ‘playing like an alien’). But Brew’s human touch is what makes his comedy resonate with other humans. It has the slightly ‘off’ elements we associate with machine-generated text, but it also has the human touch that understands why that ‘off-ness’ is so funny.
“A big thing that computer programs don’t have access to (I hope) is the immediate visceral reaction that a joke or sentence or piece of art provokes,” Brew told me last year.
Software may not have replaced human comedy writers, but it seems it’s replaced Harry Potter, and that’s just fine.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.