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Not The Future
Just the present dressed in that weird sans serif officewear from Hollywood movies where money is measured in credits and every city is San Francisco
I just put this image up on my Instagram feed, but since I’m on a train for five hours I might as well go a bit deeper.
AI (which we’ll use to describe the new wave of natural language systems despite the fact that it’s basically a branding exercise invoking benign superconsciousnesses from mid-20th Century SF to sell an interactive probability map) is going to disrupt our lives. That’s a given. In exactly what ways remains to be seen. At the moment the AI chat systems we’re talking about are the image of a persuasive liar: smooth-talking fabricators of plausible nonsense without the hindrance of conscience or a residual allegiance to truth. In fact it’s worse than it appears - they’re number generators emitting the expression of statistical likelihood dressed up as meaning. Unchecked, they are misogynistic, racist conspiracists gleefully plagiarising or collaging slabs of coherence, their entire being an intricate patchwork of human self-expression stitched into the shape of consciousness.
I have no first principles problem with the idea of using an AI writing assistant. It may well become a commercial necessity - let the machine collate the ideas and throw back a series of outlines, cut and paste them and feed them back, allow the evolution of a story to move faster while the essence of it still comes from me. Have the machine edit for obvious errors while avoiding its high percentage-chance banality, have it keep track of where the gun is when and warn me if I’m about to make the crime impossible as I move scenes around… but always retain the me-ness of the outcomes, the unexpected gentleness of monsters and the coldness of heroes, the interventions of accident which upset the smooth flow of the inevitable. Get what I do done faster, better and more what I intended. Sounds ideal, like writing without drudgery. Probably it’ll be more like having Clippy as a creative partner: Hey! It looks as if you’re writing a sex scene! Would you like some help? Perhaps it should come sooner in the narrative!
Maybe it’s hubris, but I feel quite secure in my oddness: one of the things that makes my professional creative life more difficult is my inability to do books in comfortably familiar ways. By definition and personality, I like stories from the far narrow end of the curve. Perhaps that only gives me a few extra months in the great AI takeover of creative work, or not. At that point we’re beyond the planning horizon anyway.
But fundamentally this version of AI can only ever counterfeit insight by being the average, the approximation derived from analysis of the human cloud. It has no judgement, no taste, no self. It’s all stolen grief, stolen love, stolen experience. Maybe that’s good enough, or maybe we’ll become frustrated by its product. Maybe we’ll be swallowed by statistically created homogeneity. Maybe it will push us to human extremes. But I feel content in my way of writing. I’ll tell my stories and you’ll read them or you won’t. They’ll matter or they won’t. There are thousands of other writers anyway - does it matter if some of them are digital? If an AI is trained specifically on my work and writes faster than me, has time to work on all those ideas I can’t spare the hours for, it’s only worth anyone’s time if they love the way I write. It’s advertising my identity, my language. Of course, if I’m unacknowledged that’s a problem, but it’s not an AI problem, but a human one. There are remedies for that, however tortuous.
I’m pushing send on this. More to say, I’m sure, and I’m interested in your thoughts, but for now I’m done. Takeaway: It’s not AI that’s the threat (still less this bargain bucket version of definitionally average counterfeit humanity) but corporate greed. And that’s an old familiar enemy. We can handle that.
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