Give Your Art the A, But Don’t Forget the I

With OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT making not just a splash but a tidal wave in the news in recent months, people have fallen into a pattern as old as humans themselves: proclaiming the death of something tried and true at the expense of a new, utopian future. In this case, writing is the victim, and AI will be the murderer — or so the story goes.

“I just tried an AI-powered writing app, and I am so so so hilariously out of a job,” Nat Eliason says, talking about Lex, an editing tool infused with OpenAI’s GPT-spirit. The use cases are pretty cool: You can ask it to complete a paragraph for you when you run out of steam, generate headline ideas on command, or provide counterarguments to your line of reasoning.

What tools like Lex hint at is that, rather than replace writers altogether, AI will be the their arm extension. Think Thanos’ glove, loaded with an increasing number of infinity stones as AI’s capabilities expand. Lazy writers will use AI to produce a thousand times more drivel than is already out there, and disciplined writers will stand out even more in a sea of mediocrity by putting their creativity on steroids…I mean, AI.

So far, however, AI can’t yet mash its powers together into a creative, metaphor-laden tour de force that will leave you inspired and enlightened. That still is — and always will be — the writer’s job. So no need for Nat to switch careers just yet. As of today, AI writing is still pretty stiff. Everything you ask it to do comes out like a Wikipedia page, and, for most fact-oriented queries, that’s fine.

But for the kind of writing that not just infuses but creates a character like Yoda, AI will have to do a lot more studying. It’s good at rehashing ideas but not expanding on them. In the case of pretending to be Yoda, ChatGPT returned the following quote and advice, for example: “‘Size matters not.’ Don’t let your limitations, whether physical or mental, hold you back. Believe in yourself and your abilities, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.” That’s a good tip and, unlike a lot of writing, grammatically correct, but it’s also nothing seasoned readers haven’t heard a million times before.

Of course, sooner or later, AI will get there. It’ll sound just like an Italian notary’s son born in 1452 who became a famous painter, or the guy writing about that painter 565 years later, or the main actor in that guy’s daughter’s theater play — and yet, none of it will be real. That’s the one thing AI will never be able to do: Tell you a story won from experience. And while in many cases, that won’t matter, there will be purists, nostalgics, and literature fanatics who, at least on occasion, will insist their words come from a human brain, not a synthetic one.

What happens as the world moves to electric cars? Vintage vehicles with naturally aspirated engines become more valuable. Why do people pay more for wine treaded with human feet, unique art painted by hand, and limited edition leather bags assembled manually? Because they value the sacrifice of human time and effort that went into it.

In writing, many people choose to not make that sacrifice even today, or at least short-shifting it. Why come up with your own allegory if you can copy someone else’s? Why reword if you can just quote? Why spend one year on a book if you can hack one together in a month? The answer is a matter of principle, but it also shows on bestseller lists around the world: Because people care how much you care — and while AI can become another building block in your masterpiece, another way of showing you care, it could also be your greatest excuse not to — and thus your demise.

The better AI gets, the more we will learn who really cares about writing. Who always did it for the joy of it, and who used it as a means to an end? Who will leverage AI to reinvent themselves, and who will use it to make a million cheap copies? Who will become a vintage classic, and who will get washed away by a tsunami of text? AI will give us the answers, not through a chat interface but through its growing skills and availability, but none of them will mean you’re out of a job — unless you want to be, and in that case, perhaps your art was already about the A, not the I.