Digital Poets Society: will AI replace or enhance human writers?
Let’s start with the good news: writers aren’t about to lose their jobs to robots. When The New York Times asked an AI system to generate a column on relationships, this was the result:
He called the next day. We went out for lunch. We went out for dinner. We went out for drinks. We went out for dinner again. We went out for drinks again. We went out for dinner and drinks again. We went out for dinner and drinks and dinner and drinks and dinner and drinks and dinner and drinks and dinner and […]
Yikes! A mechanical description of dating that should leave you feeling secure in your profession. But, before you relax, we’d like you to read another extract:
I was a single mother when I first met Dean, and he was a married man. We met at a bar in Brooklyn, where I was celebrating my 31st birthday with friends. I spotted him across the room, and he was looking at me, too. I was wearing a black dress, and I remember thinking, “This is the one I’m going to marry.”
Much stronger. Spookily authentic, in fact. Evidence that, while computers aren’t quite ready to take over from copywriters, they’re getting better all the time.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? We’d argue that creative types could benefit from calming down and collaborating with AI. And this isn’t pure speculation; we’ve already worked alongside computer systems.
Standards are rising with the machines
One of our clients is a global bank that’s consistently praised for its writing. Its secret weapon is Acrolinx – a piece of software that acts like a supercharged spellchecker.
Acrolinx knows the difference between an inclusive, inviting piece of writing and something that’s going to alienate people. As staff type up proposals and reports, it fills a sidebar with advice about addressing different audiences in the company’s distinctive voice.
We’ve always seen this as a happy working relationship. Computers apply the rules, but humans set them in the first place – and can override them as soon as they hamper expression.
The collaboration plays to the different strengths of humankind and machines. But how long can this harmonious division of labour last?
Our story might be utopian, after all
Most of the words you read today (including these ones) have been set down by a person. But, as AI improves, it seems inevitable this will change.
While our computerised columnist had mixed success at the Times, The New Yorker found a tool capable of rewriting classic novels and completing unfinished poems.
The tool was called Sudowrite and it was developed by science-fiction author Amit Gupta. He describes his experiments using computer-generated text with breathless excitement:
The writer’s job becomes as an editor almost. 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.
In the future, he says, a writer will find gainful employment and creative fulfilment by acting as a conductor to an orchestra of AI tools.
We hope Mr Gupta’s right. Writing has always been more about thinking and decision-making than the act of pressing keys or putting pen to paper. (This is why copywriters are often ambivalent about their job title.)
Besides, people understand things that computers don’t – other people, for instance. We’ve seen that, without human intervention, romance novels become a series of dinners and drinks, dinners and drinks, dinners and drinks.
So we get to end with good news, too. Because, until inner life can be installed, there will be a place for flesh-and-blood writers. We’re simply too neurotic to be replaced.