January 20, 2023

Can You Write Better Than AI?

artificial intelligence

If you haven’t heard of ChatGPT, you might be living under a rock. It’s the OpenAI bot that teachers, scientists, artists, writers—and basically everyone, everywhere—are concerned about for its ability to put together eerily human-like textual responses. Professors have reported students using ChatGPT to write essays, and you can find examples of songs and poems written “in the style of [insert artist here]” by the bot. Even scientists couldn’t always identify AI-written abstracts for studies. A ChatGPT detection software, GPTZero, has already been developed to help professors curtail the use of it in schools.

Dr. Diana Glyer—an English professor at my alma mater, Azusa Pacific University, and author of Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings—asked ChatGPT to “write a personal statement explaining the life lessons you learned from reading Dante.” As she says in a Facebook post about it, the response from the AI bot is “chilling.” Here’s what ChatGPT wrote:

Reading Dante’s "Inferno" has taught me many valuable life lessons. One of the most important is the importance of living a virtuous life. In the poem, Dante descends into Hell and sees the souls of those who have lived wicked lives suffering in eternal punishment. This serves as a powerful reminder to strive for righteousness in my own actions. Additionally, Dante's portrayal of the different levels of Hell and the specific punishments for each sin has given me a deeper understanding of the consequences of my actions and has made me more aware of the potential impact they may have on others. On the other hand, the journey through Hell also serves as a reminder of the power of redemption and the possibility of forgiveness, even in the face of great wrongdoing. Overall, Dante's "Inferno" has inspired me to live a more virtuous life.

Brilliant? Definitely not. It reads as a middle school-level response, rather than what we would hope to see at a college level. But it could perhaps form the foundation of a paper that a student could edit and add to with their own more creative analysis.

Balancing Fear with Opportunity

Understandably, there is a lot of fear surrounding this new technology. The assumption is that if AI can be used to supplant humans, it will be. That’s often been the case with new technology. If students can get away with offloading their thinking to computers, they will. And if people can use AI to pass off intellectual work while charging exorbitant fees, they will.

There will always be people who use technology for a spectrum of corrupt purposes, ranging from the lazy and opportunistic to the downright nefarious. 

And, understandably, there is already much righteous anger over sins that may or may not have been committed yet. In the comments on Dr. Glyer’s Facebook post, one user (somewhat sarcastically and indignantly, if I can presume to interpret tone from a Facebook comment) suggested that she ask ChatGPT “how using it to cheat on assignments enables students to ‘live a more virtuous life.’” 

I don’t blame them. Fear breeds anger.

I myself had a moment of heart-seizing fear at the thought, What will happen to ghostwriting?? I found one company that is already capitalizing on this opportunity, promising that after one 90-minute interview, they’ll use AI to generate a full-length book of your life story in just seven days. Ghostwriting is incredibly expensive, with fees ranging from $15,000 (on the very low end) to $100,000 or more. If an author could bypass that whole process, interviewing themselves and submitting transcripts to ChatGPT to repackage into a book, and then edit themselves—wouldn’t they? I’m sure many have already started. And ghostwriters—if they could cut down on the amount of time it takes to research and write shitty first drafts, wouldn’t they? 

Would it even be wrong? 

Moreover, if other ghostwriters start doing that, your average ghostwriter might have no choice; they’ll be forced to start using ChatGPT or another AI software just to keep up and stay competitive. If it became common practice, it could force ghostwriters to lower their fees, and the world might lose many talented ghostwriters who can no longer afford to feed their families on lower salaries. I hesitate to even write about this, lest I give some opportunistic readers ideas and create a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Phew. Fear indeed!

[And here I have to remind myself to take a deep breath and stop catastrophizing. I never realized how handy my yoga breathwork training would be in my writing life.]

When I first became an acquisitions editor, I managed a list of educational technology books, which dealt with the question of the role of technology in learning and content creation. I learned from editing many of these books that, for centuries, technological inventions have been greeted with fear and naysayers, only to prove themselves in the end to be helpful tools and incredible opportunities for humans:

  • The printing press
  • Radio
  • Calculators
  • Television
  • Computers
  • The Internet
  • Smartphones
  • Virtual reality

ChatGPT—and the even better AI text generators that are coming soon, I’m sure—is just the latest to add to this list.

And I have no doubt that, like every technological advance before it, AI will prove itself incredibly useful, even to writers.

Another connection of mine, Brian Dixon, CEO of Hope*Media, has been posting regularly about his experiments using ChatGPT, and he’s made me think about the powerful opportunities it presents for entrepreneurs and writers. Imagine if you could automate your social media posts, since crafting thoughtful captions takes so much time away from “real” writing work? Aspiring authors who despair about the distracting work of platform-building may have just received a huge gift. Imagine if, next week, I used ChatGPT to write my next blog post so that I could spend more time editing and writing for clients?

Makes you think.

We Still Have a Responsibility

Dr. Glyer did ask ChatGPT about whether using it to cheat on assignments enables students to live “a more virtuous life.” Here was its response to that prompt:

As an AI model, I do not have personal beliefs or moral values. My purpose is to assist users with information and complete tasks based on the input given to me. I am a tool that can be used for a variety of purposes, and it is ultimately up to the users to determine how they use me. My capabilities can be used for educational purposes such as providing information or helping students practice writing and critical thinking skills, but it is not appropriate to use me to cheat on school assignments. It is important to use my abilities ethically and responsibly, and it is the user's responsibility to ensure that they use me in an appropriate and lawful manner.

I’m with the bot on this one. Technology is just a tool. We decide how we use it. 

As humans are so good at doing, we’ll have to create norms and ethical standards around using AI tools like ChatGPT. For example, I appreciated Dr. Catherine Gao’s suggestion in this article that writers who use AI disclose that information openly. That’s just a start, but it’s certainly a good step towards transparency and integrity with using AI. 

We’ll also have to answer questions around copyright and intellectual property. It seems pretty clear-cut that text generated by artificial intelligence is not subject to copyright protection. But if a writer uses AI to help generate drafts and they improve upon those drafts, how much of it can they claim as their intellectual property? How much of it is authentically “theirs”? I foresee many court cases around copyright law in the coming years!

What Can’t Be Replaced

What I’m saying here isn’t new—but it bears repeating for those who need the reassurance:

AI can never replace your voice or your creativity.

ChatGPT is only a threat when we’ve lowered ourselves to doing the work that computers can do. 

On Dr. Glyer’s post, commenter Annie Brownell Crawford writes that the true problem, “is that we have taught our students boring, formulaic writing, the kind a robot could do. Time to write truly human writing.”

I couldn’t agree more. New technology is always an invitation to step up our game. Yes, ChatGPT can generate songs and poetry and its source code will only ever get better at imitating humans. But it will always be an imitation. It will always be building on the past. 

Only you, writer, can lead us forward into the future.

Of course, you have to be able to access it for it to make a difference.

When I first tried to visit the site to try it out, I was notified that it was over capacity and I could sign up to be notified when it was available again. Hmph. This bot is more popular than a Waffle House on Sunday after church. As of the publication of this post, I still haven’t been notified that it’s my turn to play around on the site. 

While I’m sitting in the virtual queue, I’m taking this moment to think about how I can improve as a writer. Thankfully, we know how to do that. We know that creativity takes discipline. It takes practice, attunement to the muse, commitment to your routines, and constant faith that in doing hard, unsexy work there will be great reward. 

The best way to ensure you still have a job for the future? Do your morning pages. Hit your daily word count. Spend time in nature. Get a good night’s sleep. Listen. 

Writer, your commitment to the craft is more important now than ever.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash