Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) Be Writing Your Novels Soon?
Thought for the Fortnight
Suddenly, everyone is talking about AI (ArtificiaI Intelligence). It seems it can write a Shakespearean sonnet or an argument for a TV presenter. Perhaps you have heard too much and are already tired of the subject.
But for those who haven’t yet seen what it can do, this article may serve as a useful introduction.
I should start by saying that I have never been particularly excited by the idea of AI. It has seemed something remote to my everyday life, even though I have undoubtedly been exposed to numerous examples without my ever knowing it.
But a few weeks ago, I was blown away. A friend of mine runs a book marketing company and he asked me and a few other writers to try out a new AI system, known as ChatGPT. He was curious to see what we would get.
The form invited me to set out a scene (location, date, time of year, other detail) and a character (gender, age, marital status and aims). I am not a fiction writer, but I made up a potential scenario on the spur of the moment.
What AI can do – setting a scene
First, with respect to setting a scene, I suggested the following information: poor Paris neighbourhood, autumn, 1884, school.
It sent me the following:
The poor Paris neighbourhood of 1884 was a dismal place. The cobblestone streets were lined with dilapidated buildings, many of which were in disrepair. The air was thick with the smell of smoke and the sound of children playing in the streets. The autumn chill was in the air, and the leaves had begun to turn a deep red and orange. The neighbourhood was home to a variety of people, from the working class to the destitute. The people of the neighbourhood were mostly immigrants, and many of them had come to Paris in search of a better life. The streets were filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, as people went about their business. At the centre of the neighbourhood was a small school. The school was a single-story building, made of brick and mortar. It was a simple structure, but it was a place of learning and hope for the children of the neighbourhood. The school was run by a small group of dedicated teachers, who worked hard to provide the children with a good education. The school was a place of refuge for the children of the neighbourhood. It was a place where they could escape the harsh realities of life in the neighbourhood. The teachers were kind and caring,
Second, with respect to character description, I suggested the following information: woman, 37, teacher, widowed, wants new husband and children.
It sent me this passage:
The woman was 37 years old, and she was a teacher. She had been widowed for a few years, and she was ready to move on with her life. She wanted to find a new husband and have children. She was a kind and gentle soul, with a warm and inviting smile. She was always willing to lend an ear to anyone who needed it, and she was a great listener. She was patient and understanding, and she had a way of making people feel comfortable and at ease. She was a hard worker, and she was dedicated to her job. She was always prepared for her classes, and she was always willing to go the extra mile for her students. She was passionate about teaching, and she was always looking for ways to make her lessons more engaging and interesting. She was a great cook, and she enjoyed trying out new recipes. She was always experimenting with different flavors and ingredients, and she was always willing to share her creations with her friends and family. She was an avid reader, and she loved to curl up with a good book. She was always looking for new authors to explore, and she was always eager to discuss her latest reads with her friends. She was an animal lover.
So how did it do?
These passages were received in a few hours, but presumably generated in seconds.
My first reaction was a mixture of shock and admiration. How could a machine take a few small ideas and flesh them out so well?
My second reaction was much more critical. Both pieces of writing are on the right topic, but they are both very poor. They are lifeless and dull, hackneyed in the extreme. There is no sparkle of originality, nothing to lift the heart and make one want to continue reading.
The sentence structure, especially in the second passage, is highly repetitive to the point of absurdity. Too many sentences starting with ‘She’.. Too many descriptions including the word ‘always’.
There is a need for paragraphs to give better pace.
But nonetheless, I was fascinated. Like the old joke about the dog who plays chess (“My dog plays chess – he’s not very good, he loses two out of three games”), it’s not that it is good – it’s that it can do it at all.
And there is no doubt that the prose, like that of ordinary students or even writers, will be improved with practice and better instruction. The same exercise repeated in a year or two will show much greater sophistication.
And the implications are huge. Will our novels be written by AI in the future? Or, perhaps, written by AI and edited by novelists? Will it matter to readers, if they don’t know the difference?
The implications for teachers – from those of small children to those of PhD students – are a whole different kettle of fish. How will kids learn if AI will do their homework for them? How can teachers track the cheater? They have a major problem on their hands.
Yes, there are more questions than answers. I do find it scary somehow. But I have been bitten. I am now fascinated by AI.
A version of this article was initially published by SixtyandMe.com