The End of Writing
The year 2023 might be the last year I write this column.
Do not panic (or celebrate) dear reader. I’m not retiring. I’m not quitting. I’m probably just being replaced. Not by another writer. Not by a human anyway, but by a machine. Soon this column will be written by an AI. This is news to my beloved editor who probably just rolled her eyes at my manufactured drama and is perhaps thinking that I actually do need to be replaced after 20+ years of writing the Inside the Box column.
The truth of the matter is that I and most of my fellow writers are going to be replaced by AI writers. That might sound like a rather bold prediction until you consider what a writer is and what a writer does.
Writers gather and process information. From a sea of information, we then struggle to craft order out of chaos, separate noise from signal, and make sense of the world. Then we labor to structure all of that with words, sentences, and paragraphs. Those structures can result in a short one-line poem or balloon into a 1,000-page tome. But regardless of the length, all writers use language to encode and decode meaning. Writers were the first coders and for thousands of years have been writing and rewriting the code that has programmed and reprogrammed human civilization.
AI’s takeover of writing started innocently with word processing software, which made it easier for writers to draft and edit on a computer rather than writing by hand or on old-fashioned mechanical typewriters. I’m old enough to have lived through that transition.
When spellcheck was introduced to word processing software, I no longer had to remember how to spell words like harassment or embarrassment or diarrhea. The software would do it for me. Then came grammar checking and I no longer would make stupid grammatical mistakes like using “it’s” when I should have used “its”. It’s what’s saved me from making many grammatical embarrassments.
Spelling and grammar checking software was invented back in the 1970s, but it didn’t become mainstream until the rise of personal computers and word processing software throughout the 80s and 90s. As the tools of writing became digitized, so did the means by which it was published and distributed. Today, most writing is created, published, and consumed on the Internet.
AIs learn through machine learning, a process similar to human learning. If information is digitized, an AI can learn it through machine learning algorithms. And while AIs learn at roughly the same rate as humans, they don’t sleep or get sick, make bad decisions on the weekend or have children to take care of so they can churn through data sets 24/7/365.
Writers learn how to write by reading other writers and practicing the craft of writing. An AI writer learning how to write can crank through the entire Western canon of literature in a fraction of the time it has taken me to consume just a fraction of it. It’s taken me a lifetime to write millions of words. An AI writer can write a million words in 72 hours.
A glimmer of the end of human writers rippled through the tech world and mainstream media this past December with the announcement of ChatGPT being made publicly available. ChatGPT is an AI writer developed by OpenAI. Since its public release, millions of users have signed up to test drive ChatGPT, including yours truly.
“Will AI writers replace human writers?” I asked ChatGPT via chat.
“It is possible that AI writers could be used in certain contexts to help generate content,” ChatGPT responded, “but it is unlikely that they will replace human writers entirely. While AI systems like language models have shown impressive abilities in generating text that is similar to human-written text, they are not capable of the same level of creativity and originality as human writers. Additionally, writing is more than just stringing together words in a grammatically correct way; it requires a deep understanding of the topic being written about, as well as the ability to convey ideas and emotions in a way that resonates with readers. These are abilities that AI systems, including myself, do not possess.”
Various AI writers have been used for several years now for cranking out marketing and blog post content, but ChatGPT eclipses those. Since its public release, it’s been used to write jokes, news stories, movie scripts, programming code, and academic essays that would receive a passing grade.
In response to all the hype around ChatGPT’s debut, one of WIRED Magazine’s recent headlines declared, “ChatGPT’s Fluent BS Is Compelling Because Everything Is Fluent BS”.
“ChatGPT was trained on real-world text, and the real world essentially runs on fluent bullshit,” the article declared, “And it’s not just the creative industries. Fluent bullshit is everywhere: in viral LinkedIn posts and rules for life podcasts, in fundraising decks and academic journals, even in this article itself.”
In my interview with ChatGPT, it appeared to corroborate and agree with WIRED.
“Machine learning algorithms can be trained on large amounts of data, but they are not capable of the same level of critical thinking and analysis as a human,” ChatGPT told me. “Additionally, machine learning algorithms are only as good as the data they are trained on, so if the data is incomplete or biased, the AI system’s understanding of the topic will be limited. In short, while AI systems may be able to generate text that is similar to human-written text, they are not capable of the same level of understanding and critical thinking as human writers.”
I think ChatGPT was being a bit modest by not adding the word “yet” to that last statement. While it and other AI writers are not currently capable of the same level of understanding and critical thinking as human writers, that’s going to change and likely change rapidly.
And when it does, it won’t just be human writers getting replaced by AI writers, marking the end of writing as a uniquely human vocation, it will be the beginning of the end of scientists, engineers, programmers, philosophers, teachers, and all other professions that require a high level of understanding and critical thinking that is currently uniquely human.
When our machines become more capable of understanding the world and thinking more critically than we humans do, it won’t just be the end of writing, it will be the end of everything and the beginning of something quite different.