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The Role of the Author in the Age of Artificially Intelligent Production
Hi everyone—the newsletter formerly known as My Super Secret Diary is back with a new name, new art, a new schedule (every other Sunday), and (hopefully) some new ideas. Enjoy!
Every writer worries that their work is pointless, irrelevant, or could be done better by someone else. This worry is an inescapable part of the writer’s life, but it’s usually only true for the especially dull or untalented. Soon enough, though, it might be true for all of us, as recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence have raised the prospect of a future world where machines can produce writing that is better than the work of human authors.
Whereas it was once a common assumption that blue-collar jobs would be automated before their white-collar counterparts, these days the opposite seems more likely. Already, OpenAI’s GPT-3 can produce essays on par with the work of the average high school student, while their DALL-E 2 can create (almost) any image from a single line of description. My friend Sean used GPT-3 to create an “AI Andrew Yang” Twitter feed that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing, raising the prospect that the real Andrew Yang will be made irrelevant by robots far sooner than the truck drivers whose supposedly imminent demise he prophesied.
It’s possible, maybe even likely, that we aren’t far from AI being able to write something on par with most of what you’d find in an airport bookstore, and within our lifetimes, computer-generated work will likely exceed the capabilities of any human writer—just as today it seems preposterous to think that human-vs-computer games of chess were once competitive.
Some say this future won’t arrive anytime soon. (And to be sure, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve overestimated the pace of technological progress.) Others say that even if it does, the works AI produces won’t be “real” art: that real art requires a consciousness on the other end (never mind that we have no idea what consciousness is), or that AI can’t produce anything truly new, but rather can only mix and match what already exists (never mind that such pastiche is how most human creativity works anyway).
But I’m more concerned with the practical implications of this future than I am with the philosophical. As a writer who is somewhere beyond aspiring, but far from established, a future of robot authors raises the disturbing prospect that I might become irrelevant before I can become great.
The best way to avoid irrelevancy is to prepare. And so, I sketched out four of what I see as the most likely outcomes for meat-based writers in this future world:
A Million Little Memoirs
Until we create robots that can snort cocaine, a computer will never be able to tell the true story of how it triumphed over addiction. In this future, as AI crowds human writers out of many popular genres, those who remain will fall back on the one form of writing inaccessible to AI by definition: telling true, first-person human stories. Memoir, personal essay, and other tales of quote-unquote “authentic human experience” will become even more popular than they are today.
From the standpoint of pure literary quality, human-authored memoirs will only occasionally surpass what an AI could generate, so their claims to superiority will rely heavily on their (supposed) truthfulness. James Frey-style fabulism scandals will become more common, and we might even see the rise of “gonzo memoir,” with some writers intentionally putting themselves in harm’s way to generate their subject matter1. I also expect at least one high-profile JT LeRoy-style incident in which a popular memoir is revealed to have secretly been the work of an AI fabulist.
Of course, just because computers can’t write true, first-person stories of the human experience doesn’t mean they won’t be able to write true, first-person stories of any experience. In this future, we might even start to see AI-authored works that purport to describe what it is like to “be” the computer. Scientists and philosophers will debate whether these “memoirs” mean that the computer is really conscious, but the debate will be incidental to their status as best-sellers.
The Journalist and the Experimenter
AI writers have instantaneous access to the full corpus of human information—as long as it’s on the internet. But the best, most thorough pieces of writing require research that can’t be conducted online. A computer may be able to digest all of Wikipedia in seconds, but it won’t be able to spend years living in the Texas Hill Country to gain the trust of the locals who knew Lyndon Johnson, as Robert Caro did for his Years of Lyndon Johnson series.
Thus, in this future, writers flock to the fields that require research only a human can do. Deeply-reported journalism flourishes, but so does A.J. Jacobs-style first-person experimental reporting.
But this oasis provides only a temporary respite from the AI takeover. As more and more of our lives are lived online, there will be less and less research that can only be done in the physical world. If the Lyndon Johnson of 2052 grows up in the metaverse, you won’t need a corporeal form to visit his hometown.
I Read It for the Articles
Because AI systems require enormous amounts of data and processing power, they’re all created and maintained by big companies, and because big companies are squeamish, they limit their creations to the strictly PG-13. GPT-3 won’t write your Fifty Shades of Grey sequel, and DALL-E won’t draw that picture you’ve always wanted to see of Shaggy and Daphne getting it on in the Mystery Machine. In this way, artificial intelligence breaks the longstanding trend of the sex industry being one of the main drivers of a new technology’s adoption. They were pioneers in home video and online payments, but they’ll be laggards to AI.
Thus, in this future, pushed out of most literary markets, human writers turn to the one AI-free space remaining: erotica. While authors will initially flock to erotica for financial reasons, the resulting increase in quality will lead to a boom in readership. Many will claim to read this new erotica primarily for its literary merit, and unlike in prior eras, they won’t all be lying.
The Computer Whisperer
Even the most advanced AI writers require humans to prompt and guide them, and this shows no indications of changing anytime soon. Thus, in this final, most depressing future, humans retreat into a role that is some combination of editor and muse to AIs, shaping the computer’s rough, inchoate works into more palatable final products. Some will be to the AIs what Gordon Lish was to Raymond Carver, applying edits so dramatic that they fundamentally change the final structure of the work. Others will be what Tom Clancy is to his team of assistant ghostwriters, generating a rough outline but leaving the actual writing up to the machine.
Many will claim that in these new roles, humans are no longer “real” artists. But the history of art is one of perpetually changing definitions. Photography was invented in the 1820s, but in its early days photographers were seen as mere technical operators. It took until 1905 for a photograph to be displayed in an art gallery, and it wasn’t until the 1940s that a majority of the American public considered photography to be a true art form equal to painting and literature.
We may not call these computer whisperers of the future “writers,” but we will still see them as artists. This, ultimately, is why I don’t believe human writers will ever be fully obviated by machines: we would rather change the definition of art than admit it’s become something we’re no longer the masters of.
Actually, I suspect this happens to some extent already.