Artificial intelligence has seen unprecedented growth in the past few months and years. It can write poems, prose, screenplays, and code. It can explain complex topics simply, help brainstorm ideas, summarize large bodies of text, edit writing, and pass the bar exam. It can create art, photorealistic images, music, and travel itineraries. It can even write books.
So what does this mean for human writers and readers?
I’ve made a video about whether AI will replace novelists, but today I’d like to explore the topic a little more.
In May, a murder mystery novella written almost entirely by AI was published by Pushkin Industries. Though it was organized and guided by journalist and author Stephen Marche, most of the words were produced by a combination of three AI programs.
“I am the creator of this work, 100 percent,” Marche said, “but, on the other hand, I didn’t create the words.”
Is this the future of fiction? Writers acting as directors, guiding AI to write stories for them?
I’m going to take a wild guess… no.
Of course, this kind of book production process will doubtless continue to occur, even more so as the tech gets better. (Keep in mind, it still took a significant amount of work on Marche’s end to produce a coherent, decent book—and it’s not even a full-length novel.)
The book, aptly named Death of an Author, was reviewed in The New York Times as “clever, for sure, but it left me feeling hollow, as if I’d made a meal out of red herrings. The prose mostly has the crabwise gait of a Wikipedia entry.”
But it’s still a significant moment for AI in the literary world. And it raises the question—assuming human writers stick around (we will; we’re stubborn that way), what will be their place in a world of potentially endless AI-produced writing?
I actually think AI will have a markedly positive effect on the literary world. It’ll force human writers to lean into their humanity—the thing that separates them from their artificial counterparts—and focus on quality over quantity. More on that later.
Even some of AI’s leading figures are doubtful that writers will be replaced. Good writers, at least.
“Maybe a future version of GPT will replace bad writers,” Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI (the company behind the AI chatbot ChatGPT), said on The New Yorker Radio Hour. “I think in the sweep of emotion about ChatGPT and this new world, it is so easy to say, ‘the writing’s on the wall, there’s going to be no role for humans, this thing is going to take over,’ and I don’t think that’s going to be right.”
There’s a difference between doubting AI’s potential abilities and doubting its potential role in society. I have little doubt fully AI-generated novels will exist in the future—the question is, will anyone want to read them? Is our attachment to human writers, our empathy for fellow organic creators, too strong?
I think there are three paths AI could go down—or perhaps three options for what AI already is, though it will take hindsight to recognize which it is. AI may be the new internet, it may be the new cryptocurrency, or it may be the new fire.
If AI will be like the internet, then it’s another technological revolution that will change the way we interact with the world. It’ll have significant upsides and downsides, causing problems but also opening opportunities, doing damage while not completely jeopardizing the dominance and survival of humankind. AI wouldn’t be so much an existential threat as an evolution of technological tools at our disposal.
📈 If AI will be like cryptocurrency, it’s overhyped and fraught with issues that will eventually lead to its downfall or rejection, at least for a time. (For those unfamiliar with the confounding world of crypto, it’s essentially a failed market of digital currency, riddled with corruption and scams, which exploded quickly in value before dramatically collapsing—a classic tech bubble.)
🔥 And if AI will be like fire, it could truly usher in a new era of evolution and global change on a level not seen in millennia. This might sound overdramatic, but it’s a view many AI leaders and experts hold to varying extents. Never in the history of the universe, as far as we know, has there ever been such a rapidly rising challenger to human intelligence. AI could upset the hierarchy of intelligence, potentially displacing its own creators from the top. That could be apocalyptic for us—hence the importance of safeguards and limitations for AI.
Or it could be somewhere in between.
The truth is, no one knows exactly how this will play out. AI is very much still in the early stages of development. The tech may hit unforeseen roadblocks in the future. Governments may impose regulations that limit its growth (as many AI leaders have called for, citing the dangers of rapid, uncontrolled advancement).
I’m optimistic—if we play our cards right, AI will allow us to make greater progress in science and society.
I think it’ll also raise the bar for human creation. A bad writer can easily be replaced by AI; a great writer, not so much. I expect we’ll see, particularly in the world of writing, an increasing emphasis on quality over quantity. AI can easily create low-quality content in large quantities, so to stand out, we have to harness our human strengths and put more of ourselves into our work.
Thanks for reading.
🎹 Music: The end credits from the score of The Personal History of David Copperfield by Christopher Willis (The whole album is, I think, an underrated film soundtrack. Maybe I’m biased, since the film’s about a writer.)
🗞️ Article: Watch an AI learn to write by Aatish Bhatia of The New York Times (An up-close and easy-to-follow look at how AI learns to write by training itself on text.)
🎬 Film: All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) directed by Edward Berger (Not exactly a niche recommendation, considering it was nominated for nine Oscars this year. Grim and brutal at times, but hauntingly beautiful at others.)