You’re sitting in a cosy coffee shop, the smell of freshly ground coffee in the air, laptop open, cursor blinking on the dreaded empty page. The first line of the scene just isn’t coming to you, and your muse, it seems, has long ago thrown up its hands and gone home for a bath. A button hovers at the end of your display. In frustration, you click it. An Artificially Intelligent assistant scans your draft, then spits out few options for that first line in algorithmic ink. You stare at them. They’re surprisingly good. A pang of self-doubt creeps in. Is it better than you could have written, unaided?
Is this still art?
Is this even still your work anymore?
Humanity has always struck a Faustian bargain with new technology, from farming to the steam engine to the smartphone. It has always offered an immediate improvement in our lives with one hand while eroding the quality of our days with the other, hidden behind its back. It’s a glorious trap we happily walk into, trapdoor swinging shut behind us, and whacking us on the backside each and every time, before demanding more funds to replace your suddenly obsolete model. Agriculture gave us time to focus on other pursuits than hunting, which in turn led to more labour-intensive lifestyles and less free time than that of hunter-gatherers. But once we started farming, we couldn’t just stop. Smartphones and the internet connected the world but stole our attention. But once we were connected, we couldn’t turn it off.
And then the other side of the trapdoor: what if AI becomes so proficient that it starts writing books that outperform ours? What if AI will turbocharge our creativity and productivity today, but make human writers extinct tomorrow? Are we the last generation of actual writers? Worse, is the AI trained on our work? Are we making ourselves redundant? Margaret Atwood grimly calls it being “murdered by my replica”…
Those arguing that AI doesn’t stand a chance of replacing writers boil it down to the question of creativity. It lacks, you could argue, the spark of originality. I don’t buy this argument. AI is, perhaps, nothing but the perfect mash-up technology, recycling our old ideas and connecting existing dots in novel ways. But isn’t that exactly how creativity works? We’ve always known ideas come from the fusion of the familiar and the original. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent wizards or schools; she combined these familiar elements in a fresh way. And structures like the Hero’s Journey suggest many of our stories share common patterns already. We worry not because we think what we do is irreplaceable but because we worry we’re all too replaceable.
Perhaps instead it simply becomes a new digital tool in a busy, virtual toolbox we already don’t give a second thought to: the instant thesaurus, the ability to research anything at the push of a button, the opportunity to scout locations in Google Streetview anywhere in the world from that cosy coffee shop. Today’s AI is, perhaps, a “blurry jpeg of all the text on the Web” as Ted Chiang says, but what about tomorrow’s AI? The one that can read your draft and suggest ways to increase tension on page 87, visualise a setting you’re writing about in high-definition virtual reality, allow you to see and hear your characters engage in dialogue, or even listen to your entire novel read back in your own voice to ensure the words flow?
There’s no Creative Turing Test, assessing the line over which the output becomes indistinguishable from what a human would write—you could argue that at a certain level, we’ve already crossed it, although it doesn’t seem that AI can yet write good prose.
In my debut novel, Artificial Wisdom, I’ve avoided the cliché that AI equals evil, but show its use as a powerful tool that could solve the biggest challenges of our times – at a cost. When I started writing the book in 2020, ChatGPT and Midjourney didn’t exist. Today, hundreds of millions of users around the world have tried them.
As we integrate AI into the creative process, ethical considerations will be paramount. We need to stay tuned to the ongoing dialogue between technologists and ethicists, making sure that we don’t inadvertently unleash a golem.
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, just as we can’t uninvent the smartphone. We need to engage with tech, not with hot anger but cool reason, and ensure that it doesn’t replicate us but augment us, becoming not a threat but a symbiotic partner, offering new avenues of expression while preserving the essential humanity that is the soul of storytelling.
This is not about surrender or mere coexistence; it’s about leadership in shaping the AI-driven future. So, let’s not merely adapt to this new world; let’s define it, crafting not just stories but the very tools that help us tell them. Because in the end, it’s not just about the words we write; it’s about writing the future itself.
But it’s true to say we don’t have all the answers yet, only lots of questions. I asked the pertinent one to ChatGPT: “How can writers avoid being replaced by AI? Is it inevitable?”
It gave the longest pause I’ve ever experienced from the software, so long I wondered if it was broken, if my cosy café internet had somehow failed, if I’d actually finally found a question which truly stumped the tool?
Eventually, it gave the electronic equivalent of a shrug. Something went wrong, it told me.