From assembly line workers to data analysts and pharmacists, AI (artificial intelligence) has managed to seep into a wide range of industries, making many jobs easier, and sometimes taking them over entirely.
But surely the cherished art of writing—which relies on creativity, empathy, and our collective human experience in order to thrive—must be immune to this takeover… right?
Over the past few years, researchers have started experimenting with AI that can generate text, ranging from fake (and real) news to poetry.
By using an algorithm that converts data into narrative news text in real-time, many online publications have already begun to take advantage of AI when it comes to creating content.
As this Forbes article explains, Bloomberg News was one of the first to try out this technology using Cyborg, a program that used financial reports to write thousands of business news stories.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post is using similar technology, but not to replace journalists. Rather, their program makes a journalist’s job easier by alerting them to trends in finance and big data.
So while AI has the potential to do some of a writer’s job, journalists need not fear just yet—for the time being, they’re still in charge.
What Is GPT AI?
GPT-2 (“Generative Pretrained Transformer 2”) is a text-generation system that is trained to predict the next words in a sequence based on the preceding text, unveiled by OpenAI in February 2019.
It’s the most advanced of the newest machine learning models and has been trained on billions of words to follow statistical patterns in language and grammar.
Before November 5, 2019, OpenAI had only released 3 smaller, less advanced versions of the model, for fear that the full version was “too dangerous to share.” But after seeing “no strong evidence of misuse,” the technology was deemed safe enough to share with the public.
As this Wired article explains, the system can even be trained to produce specific styles of writing, such as New Yorker articles or Russian misinformation.
However, as for its ability to push out what you and I would consider a novel, saying that GPT-2 isn’t quite there yet would be a massive understatement.
Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with what the tool can do. I tried a web version at TalkToTransformer.com, and after feeding it the first line of this post, this was the result (which was produced within seconds):
From assembly line workers to data analysts and pharmacists, AI (artificial intelligence) has managed to seep into a wide range of industries, making many jobs easier, and sometimes taking them over entirely. One of the most vocal proponents of AI-driven automation is Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt. He has said that he wants a robot army—unintended or otherwise—to save humanity from a world filled with existential threats like climate change, famine, and disease. Schmidt sees robotics as a great equalizer: engineers and technicians get to become more intelligent, with exponentially more cutting-edge gadgets and machines.
Not bad, right? Only thing is, a quick Google search doesn’t reveal anything about Schmidt saying he wants a “robot army,” though a few articles feature quotes from the former Google exec explaining that the benefits of AI far outweigh any concerns of a robot takeover.
That’s the thing with GPT-2, at least when it comes to nonfiction: it can produce startlingly coherent texts, texts that no one would look twice at. But just because it’s capable of writing related, grammatically correct sentences with some elements of truth doesn’t mean that the text as a whole paints an accurate picture.
Can AI Write a Story?
With everything else that technology can do for us today, it’s probably not that shocking that AI can scour the internet and various databases for facts and report back on its findings.
But what about writing a coherent—perhaps even entertaining—fictional story?
It’s been said that if you give a monkey a typewriter and let them bang on it long enough, they’ll eventually type the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Well, if you feed an AI text generator a sentence or two of your latest manuscript, it might just spit back your next bestseller (and in far less time than it would take the monkeys).
However, as this article by Techopedia explains, true writing is driven by a purpose: to inform, entertain, persuade, or perhaps a combination of these.
And while the newest technology might be able to write clear, coherent sentences without a grammatical error in sight, its purpose is to blend in with its surroundings, not create truly original ideas.
Also, the system is clearly not without its flaws and limitations, as you can see from the sample below, which it generated after I entered the first two sentences in bold:
Sarah began driving, even though she had no idea where she was going. The night was cold, and within minutes the first raindrops began to appear on her windshield. She drove for two hours until she was back in downtown Ottawa. She had just made it back to the King Edward Hotel, where she stayed the night. She walked out into the street, crying. I was shaking in my boots.
I asked for a lift to the airport. As soon as I sat in the car, the rain started.
Pam’s insurance representative picked us up in the late afternoon and we were back in Edmonton in time for lunch. The restaurant was nice and clean and we ordered a lot. There were six of us, three men and three women, and…
The two sentences following my input are actually quite decent, but then the point of view suddenly jumps to first person, and the events seem to be jumping around in time with every new sentence. And who’s Pam, anyway?
(To be fair, the tool’s performance supposedly improves the more text it is fed, but subject-verb agreement and sudden changes in point of view are commonly reported issues.)
Given these shortcomings, we can conclude that GPT-2 isn’t ready to write a novel of Hemingway proportions, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful to writers.
For example, if you’re suffering from writer’s block, feeding GPT-2 a few lines of whatever you’ve got so far could give you a fresh perspective, and even inspire you with some new ideas about where to take your story.
And rather than leading us to some apocalyptic future with no writers or creativity, this could actually do a lot to help writers create more.
Can AI Replace Writers?
While the prospect of robots churning out novels or news articles might feel a bit Orwellian, there’s no need to fret—at least not yet.
Systems like GPT-2 might be able to tweet out fake news, plagiarize bits from Fitzgerald novels, or finish your sentences in some often strange or hilarious ways. But let’s not forget that humans have been willingly doing all of those things for much longer than the bots.
And, as this article from The Guardian reminds us, “Writing is not data. It is a means of expression, which implies that you have something to express. A non-sentient computer program has nothing to express.”
And as long as this is so, it means that the world still needs writers—human ones—to tell human stories.
Auxiliary: A New Novel Starring AI
Though not written by AI, Auxiliary: London 2039 paints an eerie picture of what life might look like in the not-so-distant future thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence.
In a world where people spend their days inside, gorging on simulated reality while robots cater to their every need, giant corporations battle for dominance
The AI that now drives cars, cooks meals, and plans every detail of people’s lives—The Imagination Machine, or “TIM” for short—seems to have everything that humans could need.
When Detective Carl Dremmler is assigned a case involving a gruesome murder, he can’t help but believe the suspect’s claim: that it was his robotic arm, controlled by TIM, that committed the crime.
Dremmler’s investigation of the crime pits him against dangerous criminals, scheming businesswomen, and events from his own past as he is forced to stare into the blank soul of the machine.
Writing with AI
Though some details of this dystopian future might be exaggerated for dramatic effect, we can’t deny that our present is marked by the use of artificial intelligence in ways that seemed unimaginable just 10 or 20 years ago.
Whether the future involves sophisticated bots churning out poems worthy of a Nobel Prize, no one can say for sure. Few ideas seem impossible these days.
For now, though, it seems that the world still needs writers, and perhaps always will—at least as long as there are humans with human stories to be told.
Would you ever use AI to help you start your story? Share your thoughts in the comments below!