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5 Reasons Why AI Fiction is a Terrible Idea

by Jackson Ford 4 months ago in future · updated 4 months ago
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Artificial intelligence shouldn't be let anywhere near books.

5 Reasons Why AI Fiction is a Terrible Idea
Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Artificial intelligence is a danger to those with jobs that you could easily automate. Truck drivers, factory workers, accountants. We know this. It's been exhaustively documented

I used to think authors were safe—that I could keep doing my shit long into my old age, if I could find people to pay for it.

No longer. A delightful piece on The Verge published this week explores the wonderful world of artificial intelligence (AI) writing fiction It's an impeccable piece, well-researched and -written—and beautifully-designed, into the bargain. And it scares the willies out of me.

Because to be clear: this is not some imagined future, where artificial intelligence has finally gotten smart enough to replicate Lee Child or George RR Martin. This is happening now.

The subject of the piece is an independent author, Jennifer Lepp, who has discovered that she can cut her writing time dramatically by using AI to do the work for her. Here's how it works:

The tool was called Sudowrite. Designed by developers turned sci-fi authors Amit Gupta and James Yu, it’s one of many AI writing programs built on OpenAI’s language model GPT-3 that have launched since it was opened to developers last year. But where most of these tools are meant to write company emails and marketing copy, Sudowrite is designed for fiction writers. Authors paste what they’ve written into a soothing sunset-colored interface, select some words, and have the AI rewrite them in an ominous tone, or with more inner conflict, or propose a plot twist, or generate descriptions in every sense plus metaphor.

Now this is the terrifying bit:

When [Lepp] finished the first chapter, she sent it to her “beta readers” — a group that offers early feedback — with special instructions to highlight anything that sounded off or out of character. Nothing seemed amiss…Worse, some of the sentences her readers highlighted as being particularly good had come from the machine.

The rest of the piece is worth a read. It certainly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It obviously goes a lot deeper than the two bits I’ve quoted, but the fact of the matter is: AI is here, and people are using it to write books.

It doesn't always work; we are still early in the development process here. But make no mistake, it is going to get a lot better, very fast. As anyone who has ever seen sci-fi movie will tell you, the more you give an AI to learn, the smarter it gets.

You might think that I would be dramatically opposed to this. And you would be absolutely right. There is nothing about this brave new world that doesn't make me want to puke. Here’s why.

5 Reasons Why AI Fiction is a Terrible Idea

1. The results are generic as shit. You are, after all, asking a machine to draw on everything it knows to write a piece of fiction, and what it will give you is the sum total of all those parts. That means what you get will be generic, bland, and boring.

Now to be clear, there are already many books written by humans that are generic, bland, and boring. Quite a few of those who review my books can tell you this.

Many of these novels find wide acclaim, because many people who read books want the same thing over and over. They like familiar. But with human at the helm, you can at least hope for a spattering of personality, a little twist that you didn't see coming.

2. As a writer, by using AI, you lose touch with characters and themes. Why would you need to keep any of it in your head if a computer is doing all the work for you?

This isn’t just me pulling this out of my ass. Here's what Lepp said about her own AI-assisted work:

Writing, for her, had always been a fully immersive process. She would dream about her characters and wake up thinking about them. As the AI took on more of the work, she realized that had stopped.

“I started going to sleep, and I wasn’t thinking about the story anymore. And then I went back to write and sat down, and I would forget why people were doing things. Or I’d have to look up what somebody said because I lost the thread of truth,” she said. Normally, she wove a subtle moral lesson through her novels; it’s something her readers liked. But by chapter three, she realized she had no idea what this book’s would be, and she found a moral theme wasn’t something she could go back and retroactively insert. Rather than guiding the AI, she started to think she had “followed the AI down the rabbit hole.”

I speak from experience here: well-rounded characters don't just happen by themselves. They become well rounded through regular contact with their human author, who slowly gets to know them and their hopes, dreams, and flaws. You can’t automate this. It doesn’t work.

And if you think I'm wrong, answer me this. Do you think there is any way, ever, AI could concoct a character like Teagan Frost?

Didn’t think so.

3. It is an absolutely GIGANTIC slippery slope. Because it's not as if the creators of this tool are completely oblivious to The problems here, and in fairness to them, they've gone out of their way to tackle them:

Rather than decide on strict rules for a technology whose use is still in flux, they ended up listing broad guidelines and leaving it up to authors to make their own ethical decisions. The code reminds writers that “humans remain responsible agents” and must edit and curate anything produced by AI to ensure it isn’t discriminatory or libelous. Writers shouldn’t cut and paste generated text “willy nilly.” The use of AI should be disclosed to readers “where appropriate,” the guidelines read, though, as with so much else, precisely where that line is drawn is left to the author.

To which my response is: come the fuck on.

The idea that writers, who already face an uphill battle in getting published and staying published, are going to stick to some vague ethical guidelines is risible. When there is money to be made, that's just not going to happen.

You don't have to be a futurist to predict what will happen here. The moment AI fiction becomes good enough to really start selling, those ethical guidelines will go right out the window. Readers won't care, and many writers won’t either.

Personally, I think anyone who uses AI to write fiction doesn't have an ounce of professional pride, but I can’t see many other writers caring.

4. The proponents of this tech would have us believe that it's nothing worse than what we are doing already:

You are already an AI-assisted author,” Joanna Penn [an independent novelist and one of the most outspoken proponents of AI writing] tells her students on the first day of her workshop. Do you use Amazon to shop? Do you use Google for research? “The question now is how can you be more AI-assisted, AI-enhanced, AI-extended.”

Oh, get fucked.

Using Google for research and occasionally buying something of Amazon is not quite the same as outsourcing creative work to a computer. Google can give me as many sources for something as I like, but the idea that an AI has the capacity to know how to knowledgeably and carefully use that research in fiction is appalling.

I use AI to support my fiction, not to create it. And forgive me for sounding hysterical here, but that's how it bloody well should be.

This cynical upsell, the idea that we may as well do it because OH LOOK HAHA WE USE AI FOR STUFF ANYWAY, is atrocious.

5. Another revolting selling point: that writers will have a new role as a kind of creative director, collaborating with AI to produce a story.

You know what? If you Think that sounds great, then go for it. I imagine there are plenty of people who look at that and think, hey, neat!

Not me. Where’s the fun in having a computer do all the heavy lifting? There’s no satisfaction in editing AI output, in sifting through the bland babblings of a machine. If you enjoy writing, if you actually like creating fiction, then why would you want the fun shit to be done by a computer?

Writing is fun. If you don't think so, maybe you should find another career, dog.

Maybe you don’t enjoy writing. That’s fine! I get it! In which case, you’ll love the new future. I wish you and your AI buddy the best of luck.

I am aware, by the way, that I am getting dangerously close to old-man-yells-at-cloud territory here. There’s clearly a new creative form being born, where writers and AI collaborate. I think it’ll result in shitty, bland, quantity-over-quality fiction, where nothing anyone writes matters, but I do get how it would appeal to people.

What the Future Will Look Like

Because don’t get it twisted: AI writing is going to become more common. I don’t claim to be a futurist—I can barely predict how much sleep I’ll get in a given night—but the future here is impossible to miss.

If you’re a publisher, looking to make a buck, and AI fiction has reached a standard you’re comfortable appending your name to, then OF COURSE you’re going to use it. Maybe it’ll be a selling point at first: “Written by an AI!” But after a while, it’ll just become the norm. Most fiction by major publishers will be written by software, which does not require royalties or advances. It’s a bit harder to get it to do a signing, but that’s a small price to pay.

I don't mean to suggest, by the way, that all people in publishing are mercenary capitalists. Far from it. But publishing is a business, run by business-people, and I promise, the above scenario will happen.

That doesn’t mean traditional, human authors will be completely pushed out. No reason for publishers to dispense with them entirely; if your top three or four sellers still bring in cash, why not keep them around?

But the rest of your roster (which includes me, by the way)? Gone. It’ll become harder than ever to be traditionally published, with far fewer slots open. And if you don’t think people of colour and queer authors will be excluded, you need to pull your head out your ass.

There is a positive. If I’m ever pushed out by AI, I plan to start marketing my stories as 100% human-made. Organic, free range, artisan fiction. And I’ll charge a premium for it, thank you very much. I suspect I won’t be alone.

Will that work? I hope so. It’s pretty much the only hope I and many other authors have, because I promise you this: I will never ever ever ever ever EVER allow an AI to write so much as a single word I put my name to. There is no fucking way.

This article comes directly from my weekly newsletter, Sh*t Just Got Interesting. Want to read stories like it a week before anyone else? Sign up here.

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About the author

Jackson Ford

Author (he/him). I write The Frost Files. Sometimes Rob Boffard. Always unfuckwittable. Major potty mouth. A SH*TLOAD OF CRAZY POWERS out now!

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