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In a series of four articles, I am going to explore the issues related to AI for writers and today I will begin by setting the stage for terminology and a shared understanding of what we are talking about.
For most of my life, I have assumed three things to be universal truths. First, being husky meant small spaces would be a problem to work around. Interpret that how you will. Two, I would likely die from the pressurized gasses of small-batch root beers gone wrong. Nothing to interpret there. And three, I would not have to deal with the issues of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in my lifetime. Well, as Jim Steinman wrote, two out of three ain’t bad.
What is AI?
Is it purely the domain of positronic brains like Data from Star Trek or does it include homunculi cobbled together from graveyards like Mary Shelley’s Adam or Boris Johnson?
While AI in literature has better representation, it is films and television that are the broader cultural touchstones. In the 1956 MGM film, Forbidden Planet we meet Robbie the Robot, a general-purpose AI bound into a vaguely humanoid mobile body. General purpose means an AI capable of many kinds of tasks, including human-like behavior and solving different problems. Sure, some like Robbie may be wooden but he manages to be more personable than most politicians so it is hardly a defining trait.
The trend of friendly AI in human bodies continues through popular media such as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Meanwhile, alien, cold, malignant AI tends to be represented without a body, such as WOPR in the 1983 film WarGames that almost started a nuclear war, or the software ones of The Matrix tetralogy. James Cameron did a twist on this in Terminator when Skynet, the disembodied AI that wants to wipe out humanity uses a human form to blend in and hunt down Sarah Conner. This uses the theme of “you can trust the human shape to be human” to horrific effect, the metaphorical wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Are there exceptions?
Sure, AIs have been used as devices in stories more often than a chocolate frosting bag in a patisserie. I also have an analogy about cheerleaders and a different kind of frosting but I was going for less offensive there. The thing is, these general-purpose AIs don’t exist yet. They aren’t even close. When we talk about AIs today we are talking about generative AIs, sometimes called Language Learning Models (LLMs).
Generative AI learns about a body of work, textual, graphic or whatever and builds a database of it with any metadata it can gather to associate with it. Metadata may seem like a vague idea but it is simple – let us say you have an image that is a portrait painted in blue tones. It might have metadata that says the painting is in what humans describe as blues with a figure that is a person, a creation date, an author, and styles associated with it. Then when someone asks for a picture of a figure of that style in blue it has a reference point it uses along with other images in its database. Over time feedback from users about what is good and what is bad allows an LLM to get closer and closer to desired kinds of output, along with tweaks by the software developers.
Ultimately, Generative Artificial Intelligence is an illusion, where blind trial and error and clever programming create an illusion of intelligence – no spark of awareness is anywhere near the process. However, the results can look stunning and seem as if they came from a real person.
What you see and what you get
There are a huge number of services doing this now with text, images and sound. The chat ones are probably the best known and notorious for their failures. According to BBC, two lawyers even got sucked into the hype and found out the consequences after fucking around with it. This has not stopped people who are just looking to make a quick buck. Vice recently reported that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited young adult romance bestseller list was filled with dozens of AI-generated books of nonsense. In both cases, because humans used AI-generated text that made no sense.
Stock image services have similarly been flooded with cheap AI art with very low quality, though some components have been good enough to end up on some book covers. And while you’d be forgiven to think this must have been on the kind of AI-generated books I just mentioned, two of the most notable examples were from Tor Books and Bloomsbury Publishing.
However, is it really as simple as AI is bad? Let us look at a tool many writers use – Spotify. Many of us love to listen to music as we write. Spotify on the one hand is plagued by low quality, mechanical, narrow capability AI-generated content, but they also have used AI to create, what I’m told, is a decent AI DJ.
But is it creative?
It should be noted that the AI DJ is generative, but works more like ChatGPT than generating music. It is creating textual information and grouping songs based on textual metadata including, probably, some analysis of musical data. Textual generative AI like this has been useful where there are predictable patterns for it to emulate. I have used it for lists, for instance, to give me ideas of interview questions that I then change to fit the purpose.
None of this is creative – as the name suggests it is merely generative. As striking as the products can be in the end, they are nothing more than the results of calculating a range of common values, something taught in high school math.
Next time, we will start looking at the reality of generated text to separate hyperbole from reality. Let’s talk about the ethics as well as practical concerns of using AI to create.
ABOUT LETO ARMITAGE
Leto Armitage was born in America under a set of circumstances that prophesied that he would one day unite the lost tribes and return the Ever Summer. Somewhere around twelve, he realized he had been left unsupervised and binged too many Arthurian movies in his formative years and that he was just another kid who accidentally got an education while reading above his age level.
By the time he turned old enough to get a passport, he started finding excuses to travel determined to find out what culture, food and women there were to experience. After learning to grill in Oaxaca, do kinbaku in Japan, and being banned from several former Soviet block countries, he returned home to settle down and see what damage he could do locally.
After working jobs including being a short order cook, bodyguarding strippers and professionally doing reader’s advisory for erotica he realized the most reasonable path forward was to become a writer. Today he lives with cats, dogs, and humans who seem to like him despite actually knowing him. He prefers to sit on his back deck, listening to the birds and Barry the Bumblebear bee, while he writes cozy, uplit romance and raunchy erotica.