"The Artistic Heist of My Writing Job: How Artificial Intelligence Stole My Dream"
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"The Artistic Heist of My Writing Job: How Artificial Intelligence Stole My Dream"
Workshop Diary 6
Translator: Austin Wagner
This is the title that OpenAI, and artificial intelligence chat robot, gave my workshop diary entry after I told it what I was writing about. At first it was restrained, almost stuffy and academic, but then I asked it to be a little more theatrical. My own title would have been something along the lines of: “Artificial intelligence took over my work. You won’t believe what happened next.” But I have to admit, the AI won this round. Instead of tabloid clickbait, it offered up real drama, facts instead of insinuations and question marks. It didn’t just take over my work, it stole all of my dreams along the way. For an earlier version it had also suggested: “and Left Me Alone on a Lonely Road,” but I said that was an exaggeration.
There’s a lot of talk these days about image-generating artificial intelligence: can we use the images of human artists without their consent? Do we have to pay royalties for a generated image, and if so, to whom? Does it take the bread out of graphic designers’ mouths? Can we even consider these created images as art? At the moment, the text-generation capabilities of AI are less developed, but I was curious to see where they stand, what they’re capable of, and whether or not they could be a useful tool for writing – or are they maybe capable of creating text of readable quality?
Despite this piece’s title, I’m not afraid of artificial intelligence taking away writers’ jobs. Or artists’ jobs in general, I should make that clear before I show you what I’ve been experimenting with. What defines a work of art is that the artist is showing us reality through their own unique perspective, their unique experiences, and that’s what the recipient is truly interested in – even a perfect AI could only imitate this. Nevertheless, there will undoubtedly be AI-generated novels, at first just cardboard-cutouts and clichés, since those are easier to create (romance between the school’s rugby star and the nerdy bookworm; a band of friends trapped by a storm in a haunted house; seeking the legend of a lost treasure in an exotic foreign country). For an original story you need more research and feedback about what readers enjoy.
But in time, AI might be capable of this too. Maybe it will be able to perfectly imitate an author’s style, whether contemporary or classic: in 2040 there could be a new bestseller from Hemingway on the shelves which reads just like the real Hemingway, deals with the same themes he dealt with, but was written by an AI. Or maybe fans could finish A Song of Ice and Fire if George R. R. Martin doesn’t complete the series in the foreseeable future. Or maybe we could rewrite a chapter in a book if we didn’t like the original. Could AI learn so much about our tastes that it could write a book that we’d give a 5-star rating to on Goodreads in the blink of an eye?
Clearly we’re not there yet. But I was curious about where we are now.
I used the OpenAI chat for the test. All the outputs below are what it gave me, I didn’t change anything.
I wanted to start with something simple. I asked it for a description of a park:
“The air in the park is fresh and clean, and under the trees it is cool. Along the path there are many plants and the smell of grass is like the whole world is clean.
In the pond, the fish swim around and around and the birds chirp in the tops of the trees. The children run around happily and the parents sit calmly on the benches and watch them.
On the other side of the path is a playground where the children can climb on monkey bars and slide down slides. Next to the playground is a bench where people can sit and spend their time peacefully.”
Okay, makes sense, this is clearly about a park, it didn’t add in any out-of-place elements, so I’ll count that as a win. Of course, as a text, it sounds more like a middle schooler’s description of a park: the rhythm of the sentences, the word choice, and the details it highlighted. So I expanded my instructions to say I wanted a “literary” description of a park. I didn’t expect a drastic change, but the AI was clearly trying its best – it reminds me a little of when I started writing as a teenager, I tried so hard and thought I was so poetic. But if there’s one thing I was miles away from, it was poetry.
“The park was a place of serenity, a lush green oasis in the midst of the bustling city. The trees, tall and stately, reached towards the sky as if in prayer, their leaves rustling softly in the gentle breeze. The grass was a carpet of emerald, inviting visitors to lay back and bask in the warmth of the sun.
The air was filled with the sounds of nature, the chirping of birds, the buzzing of bees, and the distant hum of the city. The pond in the center of the park was a mirror, reflecting the clouds above and the trees around it. Ducks and geese swam gracefully on its surface, their graceful movements a dance of life.
As I walked through the park, I couldn't help but feel a sense of peace wash over me. It was as if the park was a sanctuary, a place where one could escape the chaos of the world and find solace in the beauty of nature. I sat down on a bench, closed my eyes, and let the tranquility of the park envelop me.”
Now before we jump down the AI’s throat: we are the ones responsible for these clichés. We are the ones who taught it about the “green oasis,” the “carpet of emerald” which “invites” us in, or the “dance of life” of ducks and geese, the “sanctuary” simile against “the chaos of the world.” AI works with what it learns, and we’re feeding it clichés. It’s as if this description is the progenitor of all other park descriptions, and in some way, that’s exactly what’s happening: an amalgamation of all the stereotypical images which results in the most average park possible with the most average turns of phrase. But this is also just a question of development. Later, AI might be able to differentiate between original descriptions and clichés, it just has to learn from the appropriate perspectives.
I was feeling bold, so I asked it to grapple with human emotion: give me a description of grief. The first output was also quite middle school-ish, so I added that I was looking for a “literary” text:
“Grief was a heavy weight, a constant presence that seemed to suffocate me. It was a palpable force, a darkness that clouded my vision and drained the color from the world. It was a dull ache that throbbed within me, a pain that I couldn't escape no matter how hard I tried.
Grief was a feeling of emptiness, a void that could never be filled. It was a loneliness that seeped into my bones, a sadness that seemed to have no end. It was a sense of loss, of something precious that had been taken away from me.
But above all, grief was a feeling of love. It was the love that I had for what I had lost, the love that kept me tied to the past and unable to let go. It was the love that kept me clinging to hope, even in the darkest of moments. Grief was the price I paid for love, and it was a burden that I carried with me always.”
Despite the stilted text of the original Hungarian, the AI’s thinking comes through clearly: it absorbed everything it had ever seen about grief and tried to produce something it has never felt. There’s a conspicuous absence of details that would make someone’s grief real: objects, gestures, pain which seems silly, a shopping list found on the fridge, or how years later you still haven’t deleted the number of the person you lost. Of course emptiness and sadness have weight, but that doesn’t help me feel the grief. I asked it to try again “without clichés,” but it gave me a nearly identical text.
Okay, so let’s look at something entirely different. There are tools I like to use for brainstorming that help push me in different directions – Dixit cards, story dice, bizarre paintings, scientific articles, etc. I was curious what the AI could do with brainstorming, whether or not it could be used as a launching pad.
I asked it for ideas about a weird horror story in an office setting, since I’ve already written something like that and wanted to play around in a low-stakes game.
- A cursed object is brought into the office, and everyone who touches it starts to experience terrifying hallucinations and delusions. As the object's power grows, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish reality from fiction.
- One of the employees is actually a shape-shifting monster, preying on their co-workers while disguised as a human.
- An evil spirit haunts the office, causing strange occurrences and driving people to madness.
- A portal to another dimension opens up in the office, unleashing all kinds of terrifying creatures.
- One of the employees is possessed by a demon, causing them to behave erratically and violently towards their colleagues.
The “evil spirit haunts the office” is decidedly not pushing any boundaries here.
Once again we have a list straight out of the handbook of horror clichés – after a second pass, one of the suggestions was that the office was built on an ancient burial ground. But if we ignore the templates for a moment, these are technically ideas, something that could have come up in a mildly interesting brainstorming session at Netflix.
I can imagine using the method itself at some point. Not because I’d be hoping for good ideas from it, but because I frequently refuse to start brainstorming. The point of brainstorming is to get out all the weaker ideas until we reach the truly original ones, but my mind just goes blank and I jump straight for the shiniest object. I’m afraid to write down the bad ones, as if someone is disapprovingly tsk-tsking over my shoulder, and I just sit there for hours with an empty piece of paper. If AI could list the weak ideas for me, it could free me of that burden and I could more confidently begin.
I kept on with the horror in the office thread. But I have to admit, I did cheat. I’d decided in advance that I wanted it to write cosmic horror, even though that wasn’t among the ideas it had spit out (though number four does have some cosmic elements).
“The office was empty, as it always was. Only the screens flickered in the deep silence. But suddenly, a cosmic entity appeared in front of one of the computers. No one knew where it came from, but everyone knew it was not a good thing.
The manager tried to deal with the entity, but it just laughed at him. "You don't understand, human," the entity said. "I'm not your enemy. I'm just a part of the universe, and now I'll show you real power."
As it spoke, stars appeared in the entity's hands. They danced in front of the workers' eyes, as if they were their own. But the stars were not as they appeared. Their true nature was dark and evil, and soon everyone realized that the entity had not come to play a game with them.
The manager managed to escape at the last moment, but the others were not so lucky. The entity and its stars absorbed them, and the office was left empty forever. The manager could never forget that dark night when the cosmic entity appeared in the office, sealing everyone's fate.”
I particularly like the visual of the stars in the office. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, the coherence is hopelessly scrambled, but you can still get a sense of the story’s structure: introduction, conflict, solution, closing. I tried out several versions, but it never fixed the contradiction of the office being empty, with “only the screens [flickering] in the deep silence,” but the manager and workers being present, not knowing what was happening, but knowing “it was not a good thing.”
I wanted to make the story more detailed, to make it more like the beginning of a novel. So I asked it to write an opening scene in first-person narration for the same story:
“I'm tired. I'm so tired. Every day it's the same thing. Wake up, get dressed, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed. Rinse and repeat. It's like I'm stuck in some kind of never-ending cycle. And to top it all off, I work in an office. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to have a job and all, but there's just something about being cooped up in a tiny cubicle all day that drains the life out of you.
But today is different. Something is off. I can feel it in the air. It's like a thick, suffocating fog that hangs over the office. And it's not just me. I can see it in the faces of my co-workers too. They all look...uneasy. Nervous. As if they're expecting something bad to happen.
And then it does. Something very bad. Something that has never happened before. Something that changes all of our lives.
It starts with a scream. A blood-curdling scream that echoes through the halls.”
Now that’s a story! In some places the text even draws you in, the first paragraph almost generates emotions – or maybe I too am just tired, so tired. Here I consider the clickbait more of a benign stylistic element, the “And then it does. Something very bad” could easily slot into a weaker horror text. Of course it could, since that’s where the AI learned it.
I had it write several more chapters of this story, and probably gave it fewer instructions, because on its own it didn’t produce a single character name, it simply referred to them as “lawyer” or “the others.” It didn’t try to be postmodern, it didn’t name anyone in other attempts either, nor did it build up any characters. I briefly tried out another AI (Writesonic, which has no Hungarian version) which immediately created named characters, but aside from this, its output for “cosmic office horror” was almost the same as OpenAI’s. It just swapped the stars out for otherworldly sounds. Later I tried to get a different description of the cosmic being, since I noticed it kept skimping on the details, and with explicit instructions it did so – it used the same suffocating fog as appears in this excerpt, and I’m not sure if this indicates a lack of tools, or if it was trying to create cohesion. What is certain is that a great deal depends on the user, since as I created better and better requests, the outputs became more and more realistic. I just had to use the correct keywords.
So I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but we’re not handing our jobs over to the AIs just yet – at first they’ll just be writing short ads, product descriptions, and Facebook posts – but as far as I’m concerned, the question isn’t whether or not artificial intelligence is going to push flesh-and-blood artists aside (I don’t think so. Both will exist side-by-side, each with their own function), but how flesh-and-blood artists are going to use AI as a tool, and what possibilities we can open up with it. Whether it’s making brainstorming easier (I can already imagine trying this one out in the real world), or having it handle mechanical tasks, or using it as a cliché detector and pulling out any metaphor from our own text that it also generated.
Eventually I asked it to write a workshop diary for me. My deepest thanks to OpenAI for lifting this burden from my shoulders.
“Writers' working methods may vary, but one thing is certain: consistency and regularity are important for everyone. A writer needs a place where they can work comfortably and undisturbed. This can be a writing room, but it can also be a coffee shop or even sitting in a park. Most writers usually start working in the morning when they are still fresh and rested. It is worth planning in advance how much time we will spend writing, and consistently sticking to this schedule. The goal is clearly to write as much as possible without compromising the quality of the writing. Writers often use idea notebooks, in which they can take notes on their ideas and questions. This makes it easier to overview their work and not get lost among their ideas. During writing, it is important to stand up and walk around a bit from time to time to get some fresh air and move our joints. This way we can return to writing with renewed strength.”
Not once in my life have I written anything in the morning, and my idea notebook is pure chaos.
But sure, I will obediently move my joints.