I was born during a time when writers were wary of what they preferred to call “word processors” but were basically computers that allowed you to write. I distinctly remember wishing I had one of those typewriters that I always saw journalists or novelists banging on in the television series of my youth. I’m convinced that it is the main reason why I, well over thirty years after the fact, continue to bang on laptop keyboards with my fingers just as hard as if I were trying to move mechanical levers and metal type. However, I never really had a good working one, or even one of those electric typewriters that I had heard of as well, which was the motorcycle to the old ten-speed of the mechanical typewriter. You couldn’t ever have everything as a kid.
During those early years of my life, print was still king and the Internet was a rumor. If I wanted to do what I am doing now, I had to petition the gatekeepers at a New York or even, possibly, a European publisher to allow me to write a book and distribute it to people. If I wanted to give my opinion about the current political situation, I needed to get friendly with the editor of my local paper so that I could submit a letter to the editor, or, if I was feeling ambitious, a guest column. The process was, by no means, easy.
I will end my time in an era where if I want to write something, the only thing I need to publish something is a familiarity with certain blogging or publishing platforms and the time to click a few buttons. And, I live in a time where versions of artificial intelligence (AI) will write for you rather than just provide a keyboard to type.
I often wondered what it was like to live the life of my grandparents, who came of age at the still-early stages of the Industrial Age and the Age of Aviation and passed away attempting to understand the Internet and music videos. Now, I’m beginning to get a feeling for what it might have been like – to an extent.
It’s that part about artificial intelligence, that I haven’t grappled with until now. To be honest, it’s not been something that I’ve considered to affect me. To be honest, that’s not necessarily the case.
Before I begin this conversation, I need to let you know that I do not have any expertise in artificial intelligence, programming,
Although I knew that companies such as Google have been experimenting with AI, I recently learned about a new program called GPT-3, sponsored by an AI firm in San Francisco called Open AI. Basically, programmers have fed this system with trillions of words and multitudes of writing to be able to generate its own original writings. You feed in some parameters,
This program has now been released as an open chat bot program that anyone can access online and try it out for themselves. And now, it appears that some writers are starting to make use of ChatGPT. This interview of Kindle novelist Jennifer Lepp, who writes under the pseudonym of Leanne Leeds, on The Verge news site, was quite informative. She is now a paid contributor to the blog of a company called Sudowrite which uses a GPT-3-based system.
She details some of the ethical issues facing writers that are utilizing this technology. Is it considered plagiarism if you ask the program to write like a certain famous author? (In my own opinion, it’s too close to the dictionary definition of the word for comfort). Is it al right to use it to write blurbs for a book, or to create plots or ideas for descriptions? (Maybe?) Lepp concludes:
I’m really just stuck in the middle, wondering which way it’s going to go. I definitely don’t want to encourage people who aren’t comfortable using it to use it. I do think it’s going to leak into their lives. It’s already leaking into all our other software, so I think it’s going to be very hard to get away from. But I definitely don’t know where it’s all going. ChatGPT shocked the hell out of me. I had thought, well, it’ll take three or four years, and it’ll get better. Then came ChatGPT, and oh my god, that’s so much better! It’s been six months! The progress is so incredibly fast, and so few questions have really been answered.Lepp
After reading multiple articles and online discussions about ChatGPT, I was intrigued as to whether there was anything to this. Inevitably, I decided to download ChatGPT and give it a test drive myself.
My experimentation with ChatGPT has been limited. I queried the bot as to why the United Kingdom no longer had an absolute monarchy and got a good explanation of the issues that culminated with The Glorious Revolution of 1688. I asked the chat bot to write a good scene involving a team winning a soccer game (shades of my new project), and it managed to put together a good few paragraphs of description in under a minute. The writing was simple, but quite good – detailed, lacking any grammatical errors, and efficient.
When I think of AI and writing, I don’t necessarily think about “being replaced” by an AI. As I have considered over this past year, I would likely keep writing no matter what the size of the audience that eventually reads my work. I am compelled to express myself that way in a way machines (at least currently) are not.
Would I actually use such a product to help produce a book faster, like if I asked it to write a few filler scenes for me or something more? I could still see myself as being a creative person if I did this, but it would be a different type of creativity than having me “do all the work” myself. If you write a book with a co-writer or even a ghost writer, you can be creative, but it is a different type of creativity than doing all the legwork yourself. Frankly, it’s a lot less work for you to do.
And this would be no different than using an AI co-writer, co-secretary, whatever you want to call it. It’s just not the same type of writing than doing it yourself. Anyone who would argue that makes as much sense as arguing that a flyweight fighter is the same type of fighter as a heavyweight or that a boxer is the same type of athlete as an MMA practitioner. If I ever included AI-assisted materials in my work product, for example, the very least I would do would be to post any word count I would get doing that with a massive asterisk and accompanying footnotes. It would not be the same type of writing that I have been trying to work on and improve for the past five years.
I was somewhat surprised, however, to find that the implications of this AI technology would have on my own writing was not the first thing on my mind. My thoughts first went to my students, the middle schoolers and high schoolers that I have been instructing about writing for the past couple of years.
The first thought that rattled and banged around the edges of my skull as I saw the ChatGPT writing that soccer scene was this:
When I say better, by the way, I mean better in the sense of being grammatically correct, organizationally on point, and having clear transitions between ideas. I do not necessarily hold that the chat bot’s creativity is the equal or better of those kids. Teenagers can be quite creative, especially if they are trying to impress themselves or their peers.
Regardless, that was something to consider. And the questions that thought raised have continued to roll and tumble through my mind since.
The thought what if students use this to plagiarize and put together their assignments was immediately followed by wouldn’t they realize that they were replacing themselves? Is AI something that could become a writing tool for students with additional academic needs like voice to text speech technology or spelling and grammar check, or is that a bridge too far? Would ChatGPT or its inevitably more advanced successors help free my students who would prefer never to write to express themselves from writing drudgery? Or will the new technology just leave them behind just like the 20th century has now been left behind?
The other evening, as I talked with my father over a dinner out, I talked with him about this topic and joked that I half expect the Earth to undergo a Butlerian Jihad at any moment. For those not familiar with the Dune series of science fiction books by Frank Herbert (I’m a bit of a fan), it was a war well into the future of humanity when it battled with artificial intelligences in a massive, devastating war. At the end of it, humanity forbids the building of AI altogether.
We’re not at the edge of some sci-fi war here. But I think this technology is going to raise a lot more hard questions about how things are going to be in our world than all but a few people are beginning to understand. I don’t think most people are ready to ponder these questions. I consider myself a forward-thinking person, and I don’t think I’m really ready to consider or understand the answers to those and other related questions. However, I know that I will have to continue to consider them for the rest of my days as a writer and as a person.
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