Artificial intelligence and the craft of writing
In his superb “Up the Organization” (probably the best book on business and management I’ve ever read, and one I like to re-read every year), Robert Townsend spoke of the “Man From Mars” approach.
In solving a complex problem, pretend that you are a Martian. Assume that you understand everything about Man and his Society – except what has been done in the past by other companies in your industry to solve this particular problem.
For example, when the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was about to tear down the Avis headquarters in Boston, we asked ourselves, “Where would a man from Mars locate the headquarters of an international company in the business of renting and leasing vehicles without drivers?” The main criteria became clear: near active domestic and international airports, so we could go see our managers and they could get to us; and in a good accounting and clerical labor market. So we moved to Long Island between JFK and La Guardia, while our larger competition isolated itself on the tight little island of Manhattan.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? I’ve used that approach when managing my own department, and subsequently a larger division, in business. It helped to cut through the clutter, and highlight the truly important issues. It’s applicable to writing, too, as I’ll discuss in a little while.
I’ve written before about the impact of technology on the craft and business of writing. I think many authors tend to dismiss it as of little importance. Unfortunately for them, that’s about to change, because artificial intelligence (AI) appears to have just taken a major step forward. It’s not yet to the point that it can replace a writer, but it’s no longer very far from that, either. It will certainly threaten the livelihoods of technical writers in the short term. The New York Post reports:
This AI is so good at writing, its creators won’t release it
A group of scientists … have designed a predictive text machine that is so eerily good its creators are worried about releasing it to the world.
Designed by OpenAI, a nonprofit artificial intelligence research organization co-founded by the eccentric billionaire, the machine can take a piece of writing and spit out many more paragraphs in the same vein.
Called the GPT-2, it was trained on a dataset of 8 million web pages and is so good at mimicking the style and tone of a piece of writing that it has been described as a text version of deepfakes.
. . .
The software has difficulty with “highly technical or esoteric types of content” but otherwise is able to produce “reasonable samples” just over 50 percent of the time, researchers said.
A couple of journalists from The Guardian were given the chance to take the technology for a spin and were suitably concerned by its power.
“AI can write just like me. Brace for the robot apocalypse,” reads the headline by journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson.
The OpenAI computer was fed an article of hers and “wrote an extension of it that was a perfect act of journalistic ventriloquism,” she said.
. . .
The organization usually releases the full extent of its research but has withheld the totality of its latest project out of fear it could be abused or misused — a high likelihood given the increased weaponization of “fake news” thanks to social media.
There’s more at the link. For more information, see also:
- OpenAI’s New Multitalented AI Writes, Translates, and Slanders
- Do Neural Nets Dream of Electric Hobbits?
- GPT-2 as Step toward General Intelligence
From the last link above, consider this:
A very careless plagiarist takes someone else’s work and copies it verbatim: “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. A more careful plagiarist takes the work and changes a few words around: “The mitochondria is the energy dynamo of the cell”. A plagiarist who is more careful still changes the entire sentence structure: “In cells, mitochondria are the energy dynamos”. The most careful plagiarists change everything except the underlying concept, which they grasp at so deep a level that they can put it in whatever words they want – at which point it is no longer called plagiarism.
We’ve all heard of cases where someone’s book has been “appropriated” by another writer, who’s changed names, dates and places, but apart from that has essentially copied the book almost word-for-word, then published it under his or her own name. An AI tool like GPT-2 might be able to automate that process, making tracking such plagiarism a nightmare given its proliferation. Given enough machine intelligence, the “fakebooks” thus produced might even be differentiated enough from their source that it would become difficult to prosecute the plagiarizer. That’s not a happy thought.
Be that as it may, let’s go back to the “Man From Mars” approach with which I opened this article. What might a “Man From Mars” do in his approach to the business of writing? Is it possible he might be able to use such AI technology to revolutionize the business, both in the broad sense (publishing in general) and in the production of works to publish – the task of the writer? I think it is. What’s more, I think that if we aren’t thinking about that possibility already, it’s going to sneak up on us and mug us – to the detriment of our writing careers.
There are several “families” of popular fiction where a well-known author’s name appears on the cover, but the books are ghostwritten by a series of anonymous contributors who are never acknowledged. What if AI software such as GPT-2 could be used to write such books, instead of human authors? I’d say such a development can’t be too far away. It would save paying those authors, and probably increase the output of the “novel mills” that church out such
dreck works of literature.
What if a writer could develop the plot for a novel, then feed it into an AI program to create the text? At present, software like GPT-2 can’t handle that, but it’s already come an amazingly long way from the beginnings of the field. How much longer will it take to go the rest of the way? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is, within a decade – perhaps less. How will that affect the book market? I imagine plot and character development may take on a much more significant role for an author than the actual writing. Is this possible? Is it feasible? Would a Man From Mars consider such an approach? If not, why not? What are the alternatives?
What might a publishing house do with such AI tools? There are many well-known series of books that are out of copyright, or about to exit its protection (for example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” books, or Shakespeare’s plays). Could AI write new books or plays along the same lines, using the same language, true to the historical canon, but setting the works in modern times, or creating entirely new derivative works that can be copyrighted as new creations? What would that do to the publishing market for the earlier works on which they’re based?
What about assisting authors as they write? Could AI software act as an “on-the-fly” editor, analyzing one’s output as it’s produced (or perhaps at the end of each day), and suggesting improvements? Instead of merely grammar- or spell-checking, it could examine style, vocabulary, or expectations of the genre (“You haven’t included a ‘happily-ever-after’ scene to conclude your romance novel. This is de rigueur for the genre. Would you like to add it now?”) It could become a “virtual assistant” to any writer, to such an extent that it might become the equivalent of a co-author. Are we ready to consider this? If not, why not?
What about the impact of AI on the publishing side? More and more, I expect AI to take the place of slush pile readers and low-level editors. Why have humans doing what software can do just as well, much more cheaply, and very much faster? What’s more, such tools will be available (for a price) to independent authors as well. What will happen to alpha and beta readers, editors, etc. when their services can be rendered by a computer instead of a human? The best will still be in demand, but many of the lesser lights in the field will go to the wall. How (if at all) will we, as writers, change the way we work, to accommodate such changes?
What about marketing? Can AI software produce genuinely useful reviews of a book? If so, look for them to proliferate on outlets such as Amazon. Can AI analysis tell whether a book’s been largely written by a computer program, or by a human being? If it can, will potential readers use it to find out which books are electronic, and avoid them in favor of human-written works? Might they start looking for specific features that an AI can highlight, so that they buy only books containing them? At the moment, nobody knows… but if the technology is out there, all these things can be made to happen. It’s merely a matter of programming – and AI can write the programs for us, too.
Finally, could there be completely new, original, never-before-tried aspects of the writing profession? If there are, could AI software discover and exploit them? Could such programs revolutionize the production of novels and associated works, by approaching the task in a novel way (you should pardon the expression)? What innovation might be possible to a program that can (and will) consider every previous innovation in history in our profession, and weigh them against each other? Who knows?
These are just a few of the possibilities opened up by AI in our profession. We’ll be fools not to start thinking about them, and others that might occur to us. Like it or not, technology is going to become more and more a part of our craft. We risk being left behind if we aren’t following it, and actively considering its implications for us.