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Curious Reads: Will AI replace writers like me?
The striking Hollywood writers won some battles, but AI isn't going away for authors.
Hello friend, Liz here.
#1 Today’s “top of the fold” story is about writing and robots—that is, though the Hollywood writer’s strike has ended, the agonizing over whether writers will be replaced by artificial intelligence has not.
For one, movie studios have held onto the right to use AI in particular ways, including training artificial intelligence models based on the writing of their human writing partners, though writers gained unlimited credit and veto powers over the use of such technologies.
But the existential threat of AI for creatives like myself still looms. And it’s not going away.
Read “My A.I. Writing Robot” from The New Yorker by Kyle Chayka
Here are the highlights:
A tech start-up called “Writer” is creating bespoke language model programs for companies like Victoria’s Secret (for a seven-figure price tag, naturally). Their founder calls this an “assembly line for language.”
This kind of tech puts millions of white collar workers at risk of losing their livelihoods:
In a March report, Goldman Sachs concluded that three hundred million full-time jobs worldwide are vulnerable to this form of A.I. automation, the majority of them desk jobs.
Kyle Chayka, author of this essay, however, received a free sample model for his own use that he dubbed Robot Kyle. After the language algorithm analyzed 150,000 of his words, it could effectually write in Kyle’s voice. That felt weird to human Kyle. (Duh) He writes,
The looming presence of my personal A.I. model has indeed left me feeling a bit like an artisanal carpenter facing down a factory-floor buzz saw.
The dread of replacement became more real the more time Human Kyle spent with Robot Kyle. He witnessed his reflection in Robot Kyle. And meeting his writing doppelgänger evoked that same kind of revulsion we often feel when we hear a recording of our own voice played back— “Do I really sound like that?” Human Kyle asks. Because he’s unnerved by how much the robot sounds like him.
However, at the heart of the conflict between robots and writers is how we define our terms.
What is “writing”? How do we measure it? And is Robot Kyle really doing it?
Is writing just a list of vocabulary words, text on a webpage, copy for a brochure?
Or is writing something more human?
Let’s call the most basic building of sentences “writing.” The start-up Writer seems to have adopted this widest definition. Writing is the simple act of joining up words for a reader, period.
By this definition, an AI program like Robot Kyle is “writing” copy for websites, social media accounts, and the labels sewn into Victoria Secret undergarments (a task actually performed by the start-up, by the way).
Robot Kyle, when utilized by Human Kyle, can create “content”, can copyedit grammar, can stave off writer’s block by asking questions related to human Kyle’s in-process writing, can create the filler text that makes up the majority of the internet. However, Robot Kyle cannot avoid cliches, truisms, or factual errors. (Even the best writing algorithms still get things very, very wrong.)
But the main appeal of Robot Kyle is the speed at which he can write. The efficiency offered by Robot Kyle is “an industrial revolution” for writing: mass production of words at scale.
And since this kind of all-purpose writing is inextricable with the market, well then, sure, replace the human writers. That only makes sense.
Because robots cost less (over the longterm) and work quicker (though less accurately). If writing is purely a product, then humans do not need to be involved at the front end, only the back end, where they would act as fact-checkers and editors.
Humans would play the role of quality assurance.
Naturally, within a society like the one I’m describing—a society where writing is primarily a product and where writers are mostly replaceable—you could also expect a counterculture to develop around bespoke human words. (…At least around select writers’ words.) As Human Kyle points out:
…In such a world, fully human-written text would become a luxury product, similar to a hand-thrown ceramic vase in contrast to one stamped in a mold.
But why would such a counterculture develop? Well, because mass-market writing is not the only type of “writing.”
“Writing” is more than an ephemeral product for consumption in the market.
By my definition, “writing” can be art, too. That means that writing pushes beyond regurgitation, cliche, and the jargon of marketers.
It’s worth asking at this point, why? What does writing do to/for us humans?
Or, put another way, what do we humans lose by hiring out our wordsmithing to machines?
For me, writing is the means by which I discover what I think.
The process itself—the somatic experience of holding a pen to paper or typing with all ten fingers—forces me to slow down, to evaluate, to reconsider, to justify my opinions. As Joan Didion wrote, in 1976, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” Me too, Joan.
And if writing is about the process (and not only the commoditized end-product), then it is also about the producer (the writer) and the receiver (the reader).
Writing is not just a commodity, but a relationship.
Yes, writing is an individual means of exploration, thinking, and associating. But reading is communal: two human minds connecting over ideas across space and time through a medium of shared symbols. Writing—and then sharing that writing with readers—is a practice that has persisted across centuries because it is a sort of magic.
To read is to time travel, to body swap, to meet and understand another person.
Writers and readers inhabit physical spaces, even if we read or write online. That means our thoughts—though surely not entirely unique—have an embodied flavor. That flavor resembles the culture we are from, the geography where we live, the native language that we speak and the time in which our bodies live and die.
This is why I encourage writers to ignore the fear that there is nothing new to say, that it’s all been said before, so why should they labor to string together sentences if their perspective is purely iterative/redundant/unoriginal? Because it’s NOT. I repeat: you may repeat themes, events or archetypes, but your position in your body right now is unique.
Partly, that’s because those who receive your words occupy an original position in the history of the world, one that may inhibit readers from receiving the writing of those who wrote before. Where previous generations of writers may fail to find a contemporary audience, however, you may know just how to reach them. You have the contemporary knowledge, language and position to break through to contemporary readers.
What I’m saying is that our bodies matter in the experience of writing and reading. Our bodies are the means by which we experience and perceive ourselves and our environments, and so our bodies are also the means by which we work out the meanings of our experiences and environments, both individually and communally.
The expression of writing and reading is one way of performing that ancient ritual of meaning-making. And I believe that meaning-making is the fundamental human endeavor.
Does it make any psychological difference to you, as a reader, to know that the words you’re reading were written by a human or a robot? How so? What makes writing worth reading (to you)?
So, back to AI: we already know that you can automate grammar and even style. But you cannot automate thought and perception (or a human body from scratch).
You also cannot automate the practice of making meaning.
Robots have no sense of relationship, so far as I know. They do not know the communion of fragility that us creatures with bodies share that make our lives so fearful and beautiful. They cannot unfurl the paradox of living and dying or any other fundamental question with any authenticity because they do not share those questions.
So, can a robot write a novel that will be passed across hands for generations? Nah.
Therein lies the difference between the human scrawler and the AI content producer. Humans need the processes of writing and reading more than we need help from AI.
The act of this kind of deep writing itself is the reward, and the act of reading the sweat on the page is the reward, too.
In other words, the real problem with AI writing programs is not the technology, but our human proclivity for short cuts and cheats. It’s not a new story, but it is an urgent one.
AI can steal away the space for deep thinking that the physical act of a writing offer to writers (and to readers)—all in the name of higher profits and greater convenience.
Human Kyle comes to the same conclusion in his essay: “The most unsettling aspect of A.I.-generated text is how it tries to divorce the act of writing from the effort of doing it, which is to say, from the processes of thought itself.”
Perhaps this is the reason I’m not truly worried about AI replacing me.
I did not want to write copy for Victoria’s Secret, anyway. ;-)
And I do want the harder task: the one where I unwind the truth of bodies and minds, where I seek to meet a reader with empathy and generosity. Yes, please. More of that and less of the marketing gibberish!
That said, I do not make even minimum wage doing the sort of deep writing that is most meaningful (AKA the sort of writing that AI will fail to copy). Sigh. Artists have always struggled to find sustenance and tapping out marketing gibberish has been one way for writers to do that. Time will tell what that means for the livelihoods of writers in general… though the future does not seem to be tipping in favor creatives like me.
But as for the good stuff, the deep and best writing? That’ll never be a job for the robot overlords.
One thing is certain: an algorithm won’t be writing this newsletter anytime soon. ;-)
Thanks for reading.
Humanely yours, Liz Charlotte Grant
More Curious Reads
#2 If you read anything today, read this essay about Elizabeth, a weirdo saint from 11th-century Hungary. (fair warning: it’s irreverent, to say the least, and contains swears. Buuut I may or may not have snort laughed while reading.) —Epiphany Magazine
”You know how a preschooler will talk nonstop until you put something in their mouth or turn on the television? Elizabeth was like that, but to God.”
the Empathy List is a one-woman show supported by generous readers like yourself. If you like this post, subscribe! And if you have the budget to spare, buy me a coffee once a month to say thanks. ;-)
#3 Did you hear? Trump’s been found guilty of fraud by a court in New York. He inflated the value of his real estate properties in order to nab better rates of investment from banks and he did not commit just a little bit of fraud either. Court documents show that when professional house appraisers valued his properties at $30 million, the Trump organization valued at $260 million.
The judge said: “A discrepancy of this order of magnitude, by a real estate developer sizing up his own living space of decades,” the judge wrote, “can only be considered fraud.” Yes, indeed. Elsewhere, the judge said Trump was living in fantasy, “not the real world.”
Which begs the question: what would your own property be worth, according to Trump’s own inflation metric? (Personally, I’m a gazillionaire ;-)) —the Washington Post
#4 Lion burgers, tiger steaks, and mammoth meatballs, oh my! ;-) Lab-grown meat turns exotic with strange consequences. —Vox
#5 The story of how our universe formed is starting to unravel. As in, we may have an entirely new cosmology a few decades from now, thanks to knowledge we’ve gained from the James Webb telescope. Welcome to the new scientific revolution. —the New York Times
Just for fun…
Can anyone else relate? ;-)