In the wake of the notorious ChatGPT chatbot from OpenAI, many are asking, “What’s going to happen to people who make their living as writers?” We’re talking journalists, novelists, academics, etcetera. It’s a valid question given the dexterity of the new technology. OpenAI’s DALL-E image generator poses the same question to visual artists. If a machine can generate a skillfully crafted piece of text or an image, the need for human writers and artists turns opaque. That is if we actually think artificial and natural intelligence are comparable competitors.
Cynics are claiming a doomsday for writers. Sean Thomas of the Spectator thinks doomsday is upon us. He wrote in a January 10th article,
I’ve done writing of all kinds for several decades, from travel journalism to art journalism to political journalism, from literary fiction to youthful memoirs to notorious-letters-to-No-10 to Fifty Shades porn (a pseudonym) to, lately, religious or domestic thrillers. And I have to say: we are screwed. By which I mean: we, the writers. We’re screwed. Writing is over. That’s it. It’s time to pack away your quill, your biro, and your shiny iPad: the computers will soon be here to do it better.”Sean Thomas, How AI will destroy writing – The Spectator World
Ouch. That’s putting it bluntly. Thomas recommends writers actually quit the craft entirely in the wake of the oncoming AI conquest. He goes on to note that all writing is algorithmic. This is what computers do well and will only perform better as time goes on. While ChatGPT can’t get manage the syntax and diction of a classic poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins, he thinks it will be able to soon.
Christopher Reid, an academic translator, has a calmer opinion of the new chatbot. He stands between those who think AI will replace human creators and the optimists who shrug off the implications of technologies like ChatGPT. For him, the impact will land “somewhere in the middle.” He writes,
Just as translators now post-edit instead of translate, it seems likely that many creative workers will ‘post-create’ instead of create. A machine will come up with an initial sketch of an idea, and then the artist or writer will tinker with it. Some may have too much pride to rely on a machine, but it will be hard to resist the advantage the technology offers. For translators and artists alike, AI reduces the cognitive load of creating. Imagine no longer straining to come up with a first draft. Work would flow much more easily.”Christopher Reid, Will AI Make Creative Workers Redundant? – WSJ
Reid is worried about copyright issues, particularly for artists, and thinks AI technicians need to develop a way for human creators to receive dividends when AI mimics their work.
Reading Sean Thomas does admittedly put a bit of a knot in my stomach. I’ve written and published a novel and a short story collection within the last year and now make my living in the writing and editing business. Human creativity is a thrilling realm that I’d be distraught to part with just to make room for the machine.
But I do wonder if Thomas’s view of writing as merely “algorithmic” is a bit reductionistic. AI can generate poems, stories, essays, and paintings, sure, but it has no grip on the meaning of its productions and can’t perform the main function of language. Philosopher Josef Pieper said it first in his profound little book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. He writes,
First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech” (p. 15).
For Pieper, language has a “two-fold purpose”: it conveys reality through the word and establishes a relational connection with other persons. Or, if you like, with other “souls.” Can AI do this? You might be able to argue it can sloppily fulfill the first function. It can report facts and generate pretty sentences. But Pieper would be skeptical of its ability to do either since AI cannot be interested in “reality.” He writes further, “Because you are not interested in reality, you are unable to converse. You can give fine speeches, but you simply cannot join in a conversation; you are incapable of dialogue” (p. 17). Pieper is talking about the “sophists” in Plato’s era. They were witty rhetoricians but had more interest in persuasion and manipulation than in truth.
So for Pieper, real communication relies on a mutual commitment to reality. AI has no such commitment. In fact, its human programmers can profoundly bias its responses.
Perhaps then a proper perspective of ChatGPT requires us to revisit the nature and purpose of language. What’s it for? Is it merely algorithmic, or does its personal, conversational element make it uniquely human? Soulless AI can algorithmically chug out information and perhaps even “art,” but it can’t be interested in truth, and it can’t be interested in you.