A Typically Ill-informed Rant about AI and Writing

This is much longer than my usual entries. My apologies: I got the bit between my teeth and went galloping off hither and yon.

A few months ago, I read an article talking about the use of AI in art, and it made me wonder about a future when AI would start to invade writing’s space. I obviously did not do a search online, because if I had, I would have seen that AI is here for writing, and despite the positive spin attempted in some of the articles I have read, I see no good outcomes for writers whatever their genre or literary aspirations.

Here are my grim predictions based on what I have read.

Genres of bubblegum fiction, the sort where new books are pumped out every two to three months (or less—how do you guys do it?), will be swamped by AI. These books are fast, breezy, and simple to replicate (relatively speaking, for our trained AI tools) and will be the first to fall. (Self-help books and business guru style books will already have fallen—I’m talking about creative writing here, not “content” that gets used to give an online personality their supposed credibility.) Formulaic genres will be the easiest to reproduce, and so the human will be shouldered aside by the computer assisted, and then the computer driven, and human assisted. The early adopters of AI who gain success will themselves be rendered obsolete an AI generation or three later.  

The idea of author collectives working together to produce works with AI within a brand is a pipe-dream. (I swear I saw this somewhere as a suggestion, but can’t find it now, so this could be a strawman, but I think a useful one to explore.) It’s never going to happen, because publishing houses will make it their business to become those collectives, and they will have in-house AI and an editorial team to create the story prompts and cycles. Why bother to pay authors when you have your own that works for free, with an editor (sorry “creative consultant”) that is on salary, and who does not have copyright control over anything the in-house AI produces. The publishing house will finally own the writing completely. Good-bye pesky artist! If open source is already producing work of the quality described in these articles you can be damn sure big business wants its own that is better, and proprietary. It is only a matter of time until we have “authors” on tour who are just paid place-people for AI derived works. Milli Vanilli-style actors hired to talk and sign.

Amazon, which currently lets everyone publish for free and have a go at generating profit for the company, will also have its own AI creative teams (with their human collaborators, at first, of course). I have no doubt they have coders working on this even as I type. They will not need the human creatives, other than those working with the AI to rapidly generate content. And this is content, not writing, but if the reader can’t tell the difference, is it? So human writers will become unnecessary—the ones who don’t make money anyway. New criteria for who gets to publish on large scale online platforms will evolve, and they will involve humans paying for access. Amazon won’t need minor indies who don’t make money and take up server space, so you’ll have to pay them to host you. If your sales are over X per month, it will remain free. For the rest, pay to play all the way.

The writing quality of AI will only improve, their ability to plot and echo typical emotionally charged scenarios will rapidly advance as they are exposed to more writing, and learn from the prompts given and the “correct” content generated. Let’s imagine (no laughing at the back) they don’t plagiarize living writers to learn and just feed off older works that are out of copyright—they will have better fundamentals and style than most writers today based on that alone, I am sad to say. (Including me.) Of course they already have studied living writers, it’s called data harvesting, or training the AI, all done on internet based text—with or without creator permission. If AI can already mimic a certain living writer’s style with some felicity, they will only get better. All they will need are prompts, art direction, and then perhaps a human to check for any esoteric algorithmic mistakes, which will get rarer over time.

But this is all okay right? The galaxy brains who have decided that everything has already been written, and all we are doing is revisiting the same 5, 7, 9 choose your number of archetypal stories and putting different skins on it seem to think our creativity in writing has reached an end point, and we can do nothing more, nothing new. So why not have an AI create new versions of the same old stories for us? The sheer fucking hubris, and astonishing lack of imagination inherent in that attitude infuriates me. Why is now the endpoint of writing that nothing new can be created, so it is okay if AI apes everything we’ve ever done, and we allow it to be the “new” thing? Did writing end with DFW? With Nabokov? With Borges? With Woolf? With Twain? With Dickens? With Tolstoy? With Shelley? With Voltaire? With Pope, Donne, Shakespeare, Chaucer? I mean we’ve always used language so really nothing they did was new either was it? The idea that we’ll lose nothing with AI writing is so foolish to me, when I believe we will lose everything—most of all we’ll lose the opportunity to be found, to be recognized as an original, to have even a shot at earning a living, as AI writing will insinuate itself into, and then dominate the marketplace: writing the formulas most readers most often like to read in the volume required (with some tweaks over time) to maximize ongoing interest and profit. The human writer, with their need for sleep, their struggles with time and maintenance of concentration, will be crushed by this juggernaut. Only the most exceptional, or the most malleable, will remain. Which some people will find entirely acceptable. (As they continue to happily consume product.) I find it utterly depressing.

But hey, I can have an AI art program copy my favorite comic book artist’s style (or combine 2-3 of them so I can claim some “originality”) and I can then use an AI prompt to write the Batman epic I’ve always wanted to read, (and write, but who cares about that?) I won’t even have to write all the words, just be a Jeff Koons-like savant telling my AI minions what to do and then take credit for it. Almost exactly like a renaissance school of art, right? And every one of us a maestro. Isn’t that a future full of rainbows and unicorns. Oh wait, the AI programs might claim that the copyright is held by their creators/coders, and not by the end user? (Funny thing to assert after their AI has learned by reading the creative output of others without explicit permission, but you know, whatever.) Even the open source models discussed in these articles have a definite grey area in that regard. So what you make with these AI tools may not end up being yours anyway. I envisage oceans of lawsuits over who owns what, with only the deepest pockets winning—and that isn’t your average writer, is it? Might not even be oceans, just a few large test cases to prove a point and scare the herd into submission.

Because if anyone thinks that ethical considerations will stop people from creating knock-off Stephen King, Jim Butcher, JK Rowling, GRR Martin, name your own favorite author here, I have a Bridge to Terabithia to sell you. People already steal artist’s work and pass it off as their own online, if they can do it by just stealing a writer’s hard earned style, they won’t even bat an eyelid. (You try writing like James Baldwin right now. You can’t—not as well as an AI trained on his writing will be able to anyway. What sort of cannibalistic future is that?)

So if the publishing houses don’t get us, Amazon and the online platforms will, and if they don’t we’ll be swamped by AI fictions created by people with only criminal, not artistic, creativity. You’ll have to sit at Thanksgiving dinner and hear your cousin gush about how he’s written 14 books this year, 8 fiction (just for fun, you understand), 3 motivational and 3 business, and is making bank, about to start a speaking tour, because his real talent is for bullshitting.

And this is the end of the essay, by the way. At least as something academically useful, as if every student is using an AI to write their papers, did any of them think? Or will we have essays written by AI, assessed by a competing AI working for the swamped professors who don’t have time for the formulaic yet subtly different offerings they receive? Currently AI essay writers can get their references wrong—that’s a kink to be ironed out soon enough. What level of academics and future titans of industry will we see created by this environment? I’d guess illiterate ones, lacking the skills to put together a cogent written argument, or the associated critical thinking skills and acumen to apply to real world situations. It’s okay, they’ll have an AI for that too. The ten thousand monkeys are here, furiously typing away as we turn from them to stare at a screen, and be entertained.

(Will quill and ink be the answer? Hand-written essays on an agreed previously researched topic, scratched out under the watching eye of a hovering academic drone, with a time limit? How old school would that be? (We called it an exam. No drones though, just bored teachers marking papers at a high table.))

The future of Judge Dredd’s Mega City One beckons – 98% unemployment, and the major problem our rulers will have is how to keep their stagnant population from getting bored and restless. But everything will be okay—they’ll have plenty of books to read…  (and AI created movies, games, sports to follow. Everything will be fine, and the sun is always shining!)

And to the three of you who have read this far: the oft repeated argument is we need to get on this train or be left behind, like visual artists who refused to adapt when their medium advanced. This will be the new frontier of writing, and it will be amazing. I think I’ve outlined why it won’t be. If AI writing does generate new and surprising twists to the form that are of genuine delight I’ll only be saddened that a human has been robbed of the chance to discover that new form of expression. Iain M. Bank’s Culture isn’t such a bad future, but by then the AI don’t bother themselves with writing—it gets left to the humans as a way to provide the illusion of purpose in their lives, or at least as a distraction. Oh to be a pampered pet, whose writing will be indulged by my AI masters.

So I’ll be left behind, thank you very much, standing on the platform with my baggage intact and within my grasp. The AI future really will be the death of the author, more literally than any sophomore deconstructionist in the 1970s could ever have imagined. Hooray.

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One thought on “A Typically Ill-informed Rant about AI and Writing

  1. Pingback: A Second Rant About Writing and AI – Roderick T. Macdonald

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