Pirelli Annual Report 2022
Writing with Artificial Intelligence
As writers who take our leisure very seriously, the idea that AI would one day take our jobs has always sounded tempting. If it could write our novels for us, then it’d be more than capable of replying to our emails without us ever having to read them. Maybe it could go for a drink with that old friend we promised to see, so we don’t have to.
As some of you will now be aware, user-friendly AI technology has recently become democratized. Anyone with access to a computer can create an account with ChatGPT and start playing around. This is currently the best text-based AI application available. It also happens to be the fastest-growing application of all time.
Having processed over 8 million documents, and over ten billion words, it generates comprehensive responses of coherent text to any prompt you input; it can write emails for you, press releases and other copy work proficiently. It can write you recipes, a workout plan, code for an app, or even provide law advice.
Like the birth of the internet, a new and mysterious realm has been carved open, the possibilities and dangers of which may take us years to grasp. When asked, even the brilliant programmers at the frontier do not know what is inside this Pandora’s box, what demons they could indeed be summoning.
Humans have a compulsion to race toward discovery and don’t often stop to ask themselves whether it should be done, only if it can be. Perhaps all great invention requires such ruthless single-mindedness: during the construction of the atom bomb, only two out of one thousand scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project quit in protest.
That said, some prominent people in the AI community have called for a six month suspension of research on artificial intelligence systems in order to give programmers more time to understand it, to build in protections if necessary.
The future holds vast opportunities. Presently, it feels already like the technology is weaving itself into people’s lives. It is inspiring to consider the vast potential and opportunities that are now available to those who previously lacked access to education. As writers, we were astonished at how much it can help with research writing and creativity.
There are of course different types of writing. It is likely that very soon vast amounts of the more prosaic things we read during our daily lives, from simple adverts to news bulletins and emails, will be generated using AI. People fear for their jobs, but their energy may be better focused on learning how to master the technology, using it to increase the quality and the quantity of their work.
Rather than being out of a job, a copy-writer could instead work on a dozen projects at once, becoming more of an overseer, prompting and quality-assessing the work they and the chatbot produce together. Those dystopian premonitions of machines taking over can be dispelled for the time being. In the short term at least, before the violent insurrection of AI powered killing robots, things will be a lot more collaborative: the machine needs a human mind to steer it.
In terms of creative writing, we discovered that no, it couldn’t write our entire novel for us whilst we unloaded the dishwasher. (Indeed, wasn’t the whole point in AI that we wouldn’t still be doing such chores?)
When we first started using ChatGPT to help with creative writing, we found that it would respond mostly in clichés, stereotypes and offer sentimental Hollywoodized endings that really weren’t ultimately very useful. It was like interacting with an intelligent child; it impressed us with how much it knew for its age, but it couldn’t really help us. Or could it?
Then we started treating it like an adult. We began giving it more precise instructions, challenged it if we didn’t like what it was giving us, asked it to be critical of our ideas, to appraise them like an editor. It learns as you teach it, responding to the specificity of the input. It started to take us seriously, as if only now had we really caught its attention, its imagination.
The ideas flowed. Entire character profiles, story arcs and plot ideas – what we might call the ‘world-building stage’ - could be mapped out in a fraction of the time it took before. The blank page is the terror of any writer. But now, in this dark wood, we have a torch, pointing us in various directions to go and explore.
Not all the ideas are interesting, but it’s extraordinary how many more you have when working with such a sophisticated sounding board. It might not be able to make you a cup of tea, but could your old writing partner recite the entire recorded history of literature?
For thousands of years we had books, then Google came along and there was a powerful new way to search for information. We were given the key to the world library, but you still had to crack the digital books, comb through it all. Now all you need to do is ask it to write you an essay on the significance of old age and death in King Lear and you’ve got it; a piece of competently written, original text, just for you.
Research and resources are powerful tools in the writers’ arsenal. With only a small amount of intelligent prompting, you can know all you need about beekeeping, ancient alchemy, the mechanics of watch making and the world of competitive scrabble. You’ll find it can help imbue your stories and characters an arcane sophistication, a Philip Rothian depth of understanding.
It’s staggering to think of how advanced these systems will be in a few years’ time. Will a machine ever be able to write a masterpiece from scratch? It might be that this question contains a category error. An authorless text is like a pretty car with no engine: it’ll never have any cultural or historical significance. Authenticity is subjectivity, and subjectivity the lifeblood of a story.
We will always need an individual’s point of view until machines can reach a human level of abstraction. This still feels a long time away. Even as we write this, however, we have a troubling sense that it could indeed be sooner than we might imagine.