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The Uniqueness of the Human Writer

LLMs are shortcuts, but sometimes the shortcut makes you miss the point of the journey

“Check this box if you used AI for this submission.” I didn’t check the box, but presumably other writers submitting their short stories did. Many literary magazines now have angry disclaimers at the bottom of their submission guidelines saying how any submission that employs AI will never be considered for publication. If a chatbot ever wins a Pushcart, I hope it’s the day that pigs fly.

The place of the human writer in our increasingly automated world has been a point of debate for years, even before the advent of ChatGPT, OpenAI’s handy little plagiarism machine that has relieved millions of freshmen of the burden of writing their argumentative essays for Composition class. If a computer algorithm can write just as compellingly as a human writer, then is there really any need for the Shakespearean touch anymore? What about the long sentences of Faulkner or the journalistic precision of a Hemingway sentence?

An interesting essay by writer (of the human variation) Samanth Subramanian notes that, similar to Large Language Models (LLMS), humans acquire knowledge through an aggregate of sources. We “scrape” language from a community that passes it down to us, similar to how ChatGPT “scrapes” 300 billion plus words to generate coherent patterns in sentence. Subramanian writes,

A writer relies in less calculating fashion on the books she has ingested than an AI does, but they’ve made her into a writer all the same. It was always an error, Tenen writes, “to imagine intelligence in a vat of private exceptional achievement” — to buy into the fable of the writer in her lonely garret, manufacturing words and ideas de novo.

AI and the End of the Human Writer | The New Republic

We don’t singlehandedly, without prior instruction or guidance, string together sentences or compose operas and sonatas. Human creativity and intelligence are more communally constructed than the Romantics imagined, but that doesn’t mean we learn in the same way as computers, or that human writers have nothing unique to offer. AI, while spiffy in its outputs, can’t experience the world around it, and still less can it understand the stuff it babbles. Understanding, then, might the vital divider, and intentional selection of detail. And without a sentient mind directing the flow of language, in what sense could AI ever “communicate” with us? How could it ever tell a story the way a real novelist does? Subramanian continues,

The art of the novel doesn’t lie in the combine-harvesting of details and plotlines. It lies in how a writer selectively filters some of them through her own consciousness — her deliberations, the sum of her life, the din of her thoughts — to devise something altogether different and more profound. This, and only this, makes any piece of writing meaningful to those who read it. 

The fiction writer designs a plot, characters, and detail in order to create an intended effect or meaning. The best a bot can do is scramble for pre-existing literary patterns and throw something together. Its “creativity” depends on the massive collection of human-made content. Every book AI pops out should include an acknowledgement page that says: “Thanks to humanity for doing the heavy lifting. I’m just the organizer!” To use Noam Chomsky’s choice phrase for AI, it’s “high tech plagiarism.” The importance of personal consciousness in the act of writing is a major part in what differentiates it from AI’s machinations. Its lack of visceral experience of the real word, its lack of “qualia,” means humanity is still responsible for the tough labor of meaning making. Subramanian concludes his essay by remarking how writing, in even its most non-literary forms, “improves” us. Language connects us, and formulating it makes us think hard about what we want to say, and compels us to make meaning out of our experience. He writes,

The difficulty of writing — the cursed, nerve-shredding, fingernail-yanking uncertainty of it — is what forces the discovery of anything that is meaningful to writers or to their readers. To have AI strip all that away would be to render us wordless, thoughtless, self-less. Give me the shredded nerves and yanked fingernails any day. 

Cheers to that. LLMs are shortcuts, but sometimes the shortcut makes you miss the point of the journey, and doesn’t even land you where you wanted to go.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

The Uniqueness of the Human Writer