A Writer's Response to the Rise of AI

What's in the future for the writing profession now that AI can write our emails for us?

Lauren Smyth

12/31/20238 min read

Meet ChatGPT, OpenAI's new bot that can write English papers, help programmers debug code, and - apparently - make a decent case for its own existence. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

Lauren: Hello, ChatGPT!

ChatGPT: Hello! I'm sorry, but my name is not ChatGPT. I am an AI trained by OpenAI and my name is Assistant.

Lauren: Oh, sorry about that, Assistant. Can you answer a question for me?

Assistant: Of course! I'm here to help you with any questions you may have.

Lauren: How should writers respond to the rise of AI?

Chat GPT: As an AI, I can tell you that the rise of AI in various fields, including writing, is an exciting development that has the potential to bring about many positive changes. However, it's important to keep in mind that AI is not a replacement for human creativity and insight, and it's unlikely that it ever will be.

Instead of viewing AI as a threat, writers can think of it as a tool that can help them to do their work more efficiently and effectively. For example, AI can be used to help with editing, research, and other tasks that are time-consuming or tedious for humans to do.

Lauren: Are you planning to take over the world?

If you're part of the artist community, you've probably heard about recent controversies caused by artificial intelligence art generators like Lensa and Wombo. Visual artists on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites have banded together to combat this trend, using hashtags like #NoToAIArt and #StopAIArt to express disapproval of the new technology. They're understandably worried that AI art will eventually put human artists out of business, killing off an industry that has existed since - well, pretty much since the advent of humanity.

Things look much the same for writers. Bots like ChatGPT can already produce coherent texts that sound like they were written by real humans. You may have seen the recent article in which a reporter for the Wall Street Journal used ChatGPT to write her AP English essay - and passed the class. ChatGPT made some factual errors that cost the "student" points, but hey, it's difficult even for humans to respond to prompts like "write an essay about existentialism and Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

ChatGPT refused to write my novel for me, but it did offer some sound advice.

Lauren: Can you write a novel about the apocalypse?

Assistant: I can certainly try to help you brainstorm some ideas for a novel about the apocalypse. However, it's important to keep in mind that writing a novel is a complex and time-consuming process that requires a lot of creativity, hard work, and skill ...

Remember that the key to a successful novel is to create fully developed characters, a compelling plot, and an engaging setting. With some careful planning and a lot of hard work, you can turn your ideas into a truly memorable and engaging story.

And when I asked it to write an email explaining to my professor that I couldn't make it to school, it took about three seconds to come up with a message that would've taken me fifteen. (Have you ever agonized over an email for way longer than you need to and rewritten it six or seven times before you're satisfied? No? ChatGPT hasn't either.).

Assistant: I hope this email finds you well. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it to school today due to [reason for absence]. I understand that this may cause some inconvenience, and I apologize for any disruption this may cause.

I will make sure to catch up on any missed work and will do my best to stay on top of my assignments. If there is anything I can do to make up for the missed class, please let me know.

Thank you for your understanding.

There's still something ChatGPT can't do, though, and that's add the human touch. Although its email is perfectly polite and businesslike, it's also scrubbed clean of personality. There's no joke about something the professor said in class, no best wishes for the upcoming holiday, and no requests for pictures of the professor's new kitten. This deadpan tone is a major limitation of AI, and until humans come up with some way to allow AI to replicate emotions, it looks like ChatGPT was right: AI is no match for human creativity.

But not all writing is creative writing. One profession that seems more specifically threatened by AI is hard news journalism. It's strictly grounded in facts - which can easily be fed to an AI - and writers aren't allowed to include much personality in their writing. ChatGPT makes a decent journalist, at least when it comes to literacy rates:

Assistant: According to data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the global literacy rate for people aged 15 and above was 86% in 2016. This means that more than four out of five people in the world are able to read and write.

However, literacy rates vary widely across different countries and regions. For example, in some developed countries, literacy rates are as high as 99%, while in some developing countries, literacy rates may be as low as 50%.

In addition to being a key indicator of education, literacy is also closely linked to other important socio-economic factors such as poverty, employment, and health. Studies have shown that individuals with higher levels of literacy are more likely to have higher incomes, better health outcomes, and be more active members of their communities.

This is well-written, but it still has a major problem: Literacy rates from 2016 don't prove that four out of five people are able to write; it only means they could six years ago. ChatGPT didn't seem to pick up on this distinction, which, at least in my journalism circles, would have earned a lengthy note in red pen from the editor. In fact, literacy rates haven't changed much, so ChatGPT is technically correct - just not very accurate. That distinction seems to be one that, so far, only humans can make effectively.

All this paints a decent picture of the state of AI today. TLDR: It's pretty good, but it's not up to the human level, and it can't mimic human voice and creativity.

If that's true, what should writers be worried about now?

There are two primary problems with AI-powered creativity. One: It draws on preexisting creative projects created by humans without payment or attribution. Two: It reduces the need for traditional artists, further contracting an already non-lucrative industry.

The solution to the first problem is simple to state but tough to enforce: AI artbot creators need to be held to the same strict copyright standards as the rest of us. If human art is used in the creation process of AI artbots, humans need to be credited and/or paid. On the other hand, if bots are simply scanning human art publicly posted on the web to gain "inspiration" - well, that's not much different from how human artists operate. Those with the technical expertise to create these bots also have the power and responsibility to ensure that their machine learning is ethically sourced. Courts of law have the mandate to make sure they do it.

The second problem is harder to address. It's an ethical question whether AI should be allowed to replace human artists, and that means there's probably going to be limited consensus on the answer. After all, sectors go out of business all the time; you don't see many people offering to make slate writing tablets, for example, because those have been rendered obsolete by modern technology. Why shouldn't art be the same way? Sure, it existed for a long time, but is that a valid argument for its continued existence? Why shouldn't AI produce art if it can do so much more cheaply than its human counterparts?

The answer is that, no matter how good AI art is, by definition it can't be as good as human art. True "art" is the product of imagination, emotion, and experience, none of which an AI can have, let alone communicate. Right now, there's little danger of that changing. So long as people can't fully enjoy art that is lifeless and inexpressive, there will always be demand for human art. True, there might be less demand. AI art is a decent substitute for human art. But it will never be a replacement - not unless AI becomes sentient, which appears to be a faraway probability on the order of interstellar space travel.

What writers do need to worry about is writing well enough to outpace AI. Voice, verve, and creativity will be at a premium in a storytelling economy where AI can't replicate those specifically human qualities. To beat AI, writers need to focus on cultivating their uniquely human strengths - which is what they should have been doing all along. In fact, the rise of AI might be a positive influence on the writing community, which has often succumbed to quantity-over-quality and over-commercialization. (If it sells, it doesn't have to be good - does it?)

As a writer, I'm primarily concerned that readers will start accepting lower-quality art in exchange for cheapness. Maybe books written by AI won't be the next Chronicles of Narnia or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but they'll be okay. Passable. Just enough. I can write better than a computer, but will the AI's cheapness and efficiency be enough to counterbalance my creative human touch? Maybe. And that would be a shame, because if writers and other artists can't make money at their work, they'll be forced to stop. If you're the kind of reader who wants to read good literature, please: Support human artists.

There's a third problem with AI that's tougher to argue for but is still worth considering. If AI takes over mundane tasks like writing emails, piecing together news articles, and drawing concept sketches, what happens when humans forget how to do it themselves? Is that even a conceivable consequence of allowing AI to complete our daily tasks?

Maybe. After all, once humans started letting espresso machines make coffee for them, they probably forgot about making the drink without a machine. And that's OK, since espresso-making isn't a skill most people need to survive. (Writers might be the exception.) A more worrying example is the fact that many people don't - and probably couldn't - produce their own food since the advent of cheap, accessible grocery stores. If the apocalypse happens, most of us are in trouble. That's a consequence of advancing technology.

Communication is more like food than espresso, meaning that it's a strictly necessary skill. Letting AI write emails is fine until humans get out of practice. And if you have the choice between letting an AI write your email and writing it yourself, given that both will be the same quality, why would you do the work? If you're a writer, you're probably proud of your writing, and you might answer: "Of course I'll do the work! I'll never let an AI take that from me!" But are you sure you'd still say that if everyone around you was using AI and firing off emails in less than a quarter of the time it takes you to write the same thing? If you don't practice the skill of email-writing, you'll eventually forget how to do it. Being able to concisely express requests, information, and emotion is a vital human skill that AI could maybe undermine.

There are plenty of counterarguments to this idea. It's also primarily relevant in the future, not right now. But it's something ethical AI users should start considering before the problem becomes too pressing to ignore.

So - will AI drive whole creative sectors out of business? Will AI-generated "art" become indistinguishable from human art? Will AI replace human artists? Will true "art" go extinct?

The only honest answer is that there's no way to know for sure. My guess - and ChatGPT's - is that AI is a long way from producing the next Mona Lisa. That doesn't mean it won't; it just means this situation likely isn't something we'll face in our lifetimes.

Meanwhile, here's an action list for writers (and other artists) who don't want to see themselves replaced by AI.

1. Produce unique, high-quality art that AI can't replicate. Don't settle for creating exclusively what's trendy or what you think will sell.

2. Don't succumb to the temptation to use AI for writing or art just because it's "easier."

3. Be vigilant for copyright infringement. If you can prove it, enforce it.

4. Don't overestimate the potential of AI.

5. Support human artists over AI art.