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Doomsday for Writers

About the author:

Greg Twemlow is the

Founder of The Skills Studio

Cynics are claiming ChatGPT is a doomsday for writers.

Christopher Reid, an academic translator, has a calmer opinion of the new chatbot. He stands between those who think AI will replace human creators and the optimists who shrug off the implications of technologies like ChatGPT. For him, the impact will land "somewhere in the middle." He writes, "Just as translators now post-edit instead of translate, many creative workers will 'post-create' instead of create. A machine will come up with an initial sketch of an idea, and then the artist or writer will tinker with it. Some may have too much pride to rely on a machine, but it will take a lot of work to resist the advantage ChatGPT offers. For translators and artists alike, AI reduces the cognitive load of creating. Imagine no longer straining to come up with a first draft. Work would flow much more easily." CHRISTOPHER REID, WILL AI MAKE CREATIVE WORKERS REDUNDANT? – WSJ

Others worry it's "the end of high-school English," per the headline of an Atlantic essay from teacher Daniel Herman. "The arrival of OpenAI's ChatGPT ... may signal the end of writing assignments altogether — and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill," Herman wrote.

I believe that it's too early to make a call. ChatGPT and other AI-powered services will continually improve; as they improve, we humans will continually adapt.

Those who learn to use ChatGPT and related products will be significantly more productive. They will lead integrated teams to produce the next influential "big thing" in learning and media.

Here are three primary reasons to interact with ChatGPT, and they're not mutually exclusive:

First, you could treat ChatGPT as a content creator.

Second, you could treat ChatGPT as a facilitator for your content creation.

Thirdly, you could treat ChatGPT as a conversational partner.

Consider interacting with ChatGPT in its function as a content creator. Use ChatGPT to create elements of a content creator whose work you admire — to develop new "James Joyce" novels, for example, or new "August Wilson" plays. Alternatively, you could treat ChatGPT as a content creator in its own right and ask it to produce a novel or play for you.

Would either of these ways of interacting with ChatGPT as a content creator vindicate the suggestion that we'll soon spend less time consuming the work of human content creators? Unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Consider the case in which you're using ChatGPT to create new forms of a favorite author's work. There are only two possibilities. Either those AI copies are inferior to that author's work or equal to or superior to that author's work.

In the first case, there's no reason to prefer ChatGPT over the original. The obvious challenge is the second possibility — that ChatGPT could create work equal to or superior to an author's extant body of work.

For the sake of argument, let's grant that it will eventually be possible for ChatGPT — or successor AIs — to create work that equals or surpasses that of its human models. In the future, it might generate new "Borges" short stories or "Bach" cantatas. We clearly understand what it would mean for further work to equal or surpass an existing masterpiece.

Even granting these points, does it then follow that the rise of ChatGPT will bring about the fall of human content creators?

To see this, consider the related case of forgeries in art. It doesn't seem impossible that forgers could create pieces that surpass the artistry of an Old Master. However, when people flock to art museums, they want reassurance that they view genuine works rather than forgeries.

The broader lesson from this is twofold. First, we appreciate great works of art because we can be amazed at the genius of the *human* who created that art.

The second reason is that artworks are a product of historical context. Joyce's Ulysses embeds himself in a conversation with the classical tradition and the Irish political context that molded Joyce. Furthermore, subsequent work by later novelists like Gaddis, Pynchon, and Foster Wallace is a reaction to Ulysses. A new "James Joyce" novel would be devoid of this context and, for that reason, much less interesting.

Both of these points contest that using ChatGPT to create original content, rather than pastiches, might render human content creators redundant.

Likely, these points apply even more forcefully in the case of nonfiction. Even when future iterations of ChatGPT address its current tendency for bullshitting, it will still, at best, present a consensus view like a good textbook. Textbooks or encyclopedias, however, don't pose a threat to specialist works!

The point about the disruptiveness of ChatGPT is more substantial when considering ChatGPT as a facilitator of content creation.

People who take advantage of AI's strengths will have an advantage in creating new and better content. Educators will have to familiarize themselves with tools such as ChatGPT to help their students in ways that will improve their own lives.

Those fearing ChatGPT's impact on writing education make the same mistake that educators of a previous generation made when fearing math students' use of calculators.

The point of learning to write is that learning to write is learning to think. It is impossible — at least for most people — to develop a complex, multi-part argument without writing.

Writing is the only technique to keep track of the steps of the argument. Writing is also essential in working out the steps of the argument in the first place.

For this reason, it doesn't matter how well ChatGPT can formulate an argument. Instead, students will still need to develop those arguments to learn how to think.

The analogy here to calculators should be obvious. A 6th-grade student's graphing calculator can do matrix arithmetic, graph equations, and solve integrals. However, the student will still have to learn to do all those tasks if she wants to achieve a deeper understanding of math.

ChatGPT's value as a conversationalist seems similar to those arguing for the strengths of ChatGPT as a facilitator of content creation.

However, two considerations are pushing me to be less confident about the values of ChatGPT as an interlocutor. The first is that much of what I want from interacting with others is human connection, apart from intellectual stimulation.

The second consideration is that even when considering the intellectual stimulation from interacting with others, it needs clarification whether ChatGPT has an advantage.

Here I may be revealing my age as a person "who still cares what [well-known, established writers] think, as named individuals." However, why would I select a large language model if I chose a non-living interlocutor? Essentially a sophisticated search algorithm performed on an astronomically extensive database – when I could choose one of the great thinkers of the past?

I love the W.E.B. DuBois quote from Chapter VI of The Souls of Black Folk, in which DuBois celebrates his freedom to assemble with the pinnacle of human thought through books:

"I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line, I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the eaves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius, and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil."

Should you spend more time with ChatGPT and its successors rather than the work of human content creators? It's possible, as a purely predictive claim, that people will – simply as a matter of fact – spend more time with AI-produced content. If only because, it's likely that very soon 80% of textual content will be AI-generated.

About the author: Greg Twemlow is the Founder of The Skills Studio

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