Three stories, one lesson.
Yesterday, a friend forwarded me a sample ad for a car seat, written by ChatGPT:
“As a young parent, keeping your child safe and secure is your top priority. That’s why you need a car seat designed by professionals who understand the importance of safety and comfort. Our car seats are engineered with the latest safety features and materials to provide the ultimate protection for your little one. From side-impact protection to easy installation, you can trust that your child is in good hands with our car seats. Don’t compromise on your child’s safety — choose a car seat designed by professionals. Order yours today!”
The creator’s comment? “Copywriters are screwed.”
Yesterday, I also overheard a conversation at work. “I had ChatGPT write like 80% of this thing for work, and when I read it out at the meeting, everyone was impressed. When I told them it was written by AI, they suddenly said: ‘Oh yeah, you can kinda tell.’ Then, they started criticizing bits of the text — but they were the bits I had written!”
Yesterday, I remembered a great article on Wait But Why: The Cook and the Chef. In the piece, Tim Urban tries to explain Elon Musk’s genius. “Yeah, Musk is smart and insanely ambitious,” Urban concludes, “but that’s not why he’s beating everybody. What makes Musk so rad is that he’s a software outlier. A chef in a world of cooks.”
Urban argues that, where most people try to follow other people’s recipes in all areas of life, Musk makes up his own. In the short term, that often leads to failure. But in the long run, it leads to what we think is genius when, actually, Musk simply applies logic and creativity from scratch.
Therefore, Urban argues, “the real story here isn’t Musk. It’s us.” Why is someone like Elon so rare? Why aren’t we all using our imagination and reason more deliberately? “The curious thing about the car industry isn’t why Tesla is focusing so hard on electric cars, and the curious thing about the aerospace industry isn’t why SpaceX is trying so hard to make rockets reusable — the fascinating question is why they’re the only companies doing so.”
“We spent this whole time trying to figure out the mysterious workings of the mind of a madman genius only to realize that Musk’s secret sauce is that he’s the only one being normal,” Urban concludes. Therefore, “in isolation, Musk would be a pretty boring subject—it’s the backdrop of us that makes him interesting” — and it’s the same thing with AI.
When a technological breakthrough happens, it is considered a breakthrough because, collectively, we were very bad at solving that particular problem for a very long time. Often, the breakthrough itself is less fascinating than why it took us so long to get there.
In the case of ChatGPT and writing, the fact that so many of us are amazed at its ability to form a few coherent, somewhat logical sentences with correct grammar says more about us than about the technology: Most people’s writing utterly sucks — and that’s why they’re thrilled at the prospect of never having to do any of it ever again, even if that prospect is only on its first set of diapers.
This is neither news nor surprising, but AI is beginning to expose how systemic of a problem this is. Traditional education turns writing into a dismal chore from the start, and so whatever linguistic skill it might imbibe on you will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Naturally, most people aren’t keen to pick up the pen later in life, and wherever they have to do it — and it’s a lot of places where we have to do it — they’d really rather not.
While it’s great that AI will help us solve the output-side of that problem — you’ll just be able to generate any text with a simple prompt — the question is what will it cost us, and when will we pay that price?
My personal nostalgia for writing aside, I think the real danger lies not in losing the skill of writing but in losing the ability of thinking. The biggest benefits of writing have nothing to do with the output. They’re about what happens inside the writer: You learn to structure your thoughts and process your emotions. At the very least, you learn to reflect on what you say before you blurt it out, and you understand that not all feelings must be acted upon. Stop practicing the hard skill you originally picked up to get some ulterior result, and those internal abilities will also go out the window. In that sense, it is easy to imagine the human species without writing as a species of blubbering, impulse-driven monkeys — and if you can make bananas rain from the sky at the push of a button, soon, pushing the button might be all you’re able to do. As for the when, schools and universities around the world are already scrambling to catch up with proliferating GPT-essays, and if people opt out of thinking in the institutions designed to teach you how to do it, what chance do other, more profit-driven organizations have?
The first time you read that car seat ad, it’s easy to be impressed. “Wow, how coherent! How logical! How grammatically correct!” Read it again, however, and ask yourself this: How much does this really make you want to buy a car seat?
If someone thinks “copywriters are screwed” based on this ad, that once again says more about them than about copywriters. It indicates they wouldn’t be able to write a better text themselves, but if, as a professional copywriter, that’s the kind of work of you deliver, then you’ve long been screwed already — you just haven’t been fired yet. Good writers will combine the A with their own I to ship newer, better, more creative work. Their hours won’t go down, and the amount of hard work required won’t change — it’s just the kind of work that will be different.
For most people, however, AI will mostly make a part of their lives easier that they don’t care much about but need to get done: writing. The real questions, therefore, are not who will be replaced first and when we can stop learning how to write altogether. They are…
Is the technology really that good, or are you just bad? And what’s the skill you really need to improve?
The break is far from through, and hope is never lost — but perhaps every now and then, think about the subject, not the prompts. You never know when that computer between your ears might come in handy, and it better be ready when you need it.