The Computers Are Getting Better at Writing, Thanks to Artificial Intelligence

Bill Mount

At first, I was confused by this continuation from the machine. For one thing, Englander doesn’t write with sentence fragments, but, upon rereading, the content seemed Englander-esque to me. “It’s a shocking and terrifying leap,” he said, when I showed it to him. “Yes, it’s off. But not in the […]

At first, I was confused by this continuation from the machine. For one thing, Englander doesn’t write with sentence fragments, but, upon rereading, the content seemed Englander-esque to me. “It’s a shocking and terrifying leap,” he said, when I showed it to him. “Yes, it’s off. But not in the sense that a computer wrote it but in the sense that someone just starting to write fiction wrote it—sloppy but well-meaning. It’s like it has the spark of life to it but just needs to sit down and focus and put the hours in.” Although Englander doesn’t feel the passage is something he would write, he doesn’t hate it, either. “It was like the work of someone aspiring to write,” he said. “Like maybe a well-meaning pre-med student or business student fulfilling a writing requirement because they have to—the work is there, but maybe without some of the hunger. But it definitely feels teachable. I’d totally sit down and have a cup of coffee with the machine. You know, to talk things out.”

Friendliness will not be the typical reaction, I fear. The first reaction to this technology will be dismissal—that the technology isn’t really doing anything much at all, that it isn’t writing, that it’s just a toy. The second reaction will be unease—that the technology is doing too much, that it is writing, that it will replace the human. GPT-3 is a tool. It does not think or feel. It performs instructions in language. The OpenAI people imagine it for “generating news articles, translation, answering questions.” But these are the businessman’s pedantic and vaguely optimistic approaches to the world’s language needs.

For those who choose to use artificial intelligence, it will alter the task of writing. “The writer’s job becomes as an editor almost,” Gupta said. “Your role starts to become deciding what’s good and executing on your taste, not as much the low-level work of pumping out word by word by word. You’re still editing lines and copy and making those words beautiful, but, as you move up in that chain, and you’re executing your taste, you have the potential to do a lot more.” The artist wants to do something with language. The machines will enact it. The intention will be the art, the craft of language an afterthought.

For writers who don’t like writing—which, in my experience, is nearly all of us—Sudowrite may well be a salvation. Just pop in what you have, whatever scraps of notes, and let the machine give you options. There are other, more obvious applications. Sudowrite was relatively effective when I asked it to continue Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” I assume it will be used by publishers to complete unfinished works like Jane Austen’s “Sanditon” or P. G. Wodehouse’s “Sunset at Blandings.” With a competent technician and an editor-writer you could compose them now, rapidly, with the technology that’s available. There must be a market for a new Austen or Wodehouse. I could do either in a weekend. (Other writers have already tried to write like Austen and Wodehouse, but even excellent examples always feel like contemporary versions of their works. If you used a Wodehouse machine or an Austen machine, it would sound like they sound. The future would not have happened to the algorithm.)

Gupta knows that Sudowrite is only beginning to sense, dimly, the possibilities of GPT-3, never mind the possibilities of artificial intelligence in natural language. GPT-3 is perhaps the Model A of this technology. The above is a small taste of what can be done at a hundred and seventy-five billion parameters. What happens at a trillion? What happens at ten trillion? The human brain has about a hundred trillion parameters. What happens when the technology passes that number? “It’s early days,” Gupta said. “I see a future where it gets super more sophisticated and it helps you realize ideas that you couldn’t realize easily on your own.”

The creative possibilities are exciting and terrifying. Englander didn’t really see the machine as a competitor to himself but almost as a student that he could coax out of weakness. “If it was desperately trying to tell me something about dreams, it would have the juice,” Englander told me. “But this was more like the work of somebody who admires writing but doesn’t need to write. Someone—a living, breathing someone—trying to sound like they think a writer should.”

Already, what GPT-3 shows is that literary style is an algorithm, a complex series of instructions. The reason a passage from Kafka or Coleridge or Englander doesn’t look like math is because the mind isn’t capable of holding a hundred and seventy-five billion parameters at the same time. Very soon, when you read a text you will not be able to assume a person intended or wrote that language. Eventually, this technology will escape the confines of the scientific realm, to those who use language to manipulate and to control, and perhaps even those who use language to express and celebrate.

Meanwhile, there are other avenues of meaning to explore. If you put in the whole of “The Metamorphosis” into Sudowrite, it will compose an extension:

When Mr. Samsa thought about moving house and how they could all pull their way up again, he couldn’t suppress a shiver running down his spine—and this shiver ran down the spine of all three of them, he could see, as if they were collectively possessed and trembling all over with some sort of fever. It was more like a convulsion than a shiver. Then they calmed down, quite exhausted. Mr. Samsa thought: “If we continue like this we’ll soon be having a charwoman in our family. First thing tomorrow I’ll make inquiries about suitable flats”. And then he looked up: the two women were gazing ahead and did not see that he was looking at them. All of a sudden Grete burst out laughing. “What’s that for?”, asked her father. “Well, just because”, replied Grete. And Mr. Samsa did not insist.

But “The Metamorphosis” doesn’t need extension. It’s perfect. It has survived because the core meaning of its story continues to resonate. Gregor is subject to a miracle that is at once a revelation and a catastrophe. The human entity changes once again, in a way that is both magical and degrading.

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