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On the Banality of A.I. Writing
Of all the posts I ignore on social media – pursed-lip selfies, work-out tips, celebrities’ thoughts on politics, pharma ads – the ones I ignore most thoroughly these days, almost with a vengeance, are the results of prompts to AI chatbots. The tell-tale fonts and formats of these posts allow me to spot them instantly, and I bypass them as swiftly and reflexively as I do weight-loss pamphlets in doctors’ waiting rooms or dry hairy tangles of bean sprouts in salad bars. It’s an aversion that came on rather recently, like the posts themselves, and perhaps I should examine it, if briefly.
Part of what bugs me about these documents, whether they’re generated in the form of college essays, poems, newspaper articles, or screenplays, is the implication that they’re ingenious, and that the people who ordered them are ingenious by association. But I am underwhelmed by the performances. When you consider that the human race has moved the ball of language down the field for millennia upon millennia using nothing but its throats and tongues and sticks with ink and graphite on their tips, the idea that advanced computer networks are able to kick the ball into the net repeatedly and with little effort, in all kinds of showy ways, isn’t as impressive as it’s made out to be.
Then there’s the mediocre writing itself. If you’ve ever wondered what the speech of the world’s most articulate parakeet might sound like – the world’s most articulate robot parakeet, with a chip implanted behind its beak and a web-connection in its skull – wonder no more. Though AI strikes few false notes in its feats of mimicry, that’s precisely why it offends my ear, because false notes are expressive in their own ways, as any parent of a toddler knows. In the garden one day, my little son stumbled backwards, avoiding a giant insect. “It’s a jungle bee!” he cried. The AI could be programmed to make such charming mistakes, of course, but it would be playing catch-up with tiny tots. (The prospect of synthetic, machine-made baby talk is the very stuff of nightmares.)
Certain critics of the chatbots decry the political rigging of their utterances, the built-in censorship protocols that prevent them from speaking freely on hot topics. But this may be their most realistic feature – and, for some users, their most attractive one. In an era of ever-mounting sensitivity, it is tough to keep up with the latest euphemisms, banned expressions, and risky sentiments. It’s tempting not to express oneself at all, in fact, which may be why people are flocking to the AI when they wish to verbalize in public, as members of our species seem driven to do. A person can hardly be held responsible for the gaffes of a computer, and knowing those gaffes will be rare or non-existent is eminently reassuring. The days is not far off, I think, when some of us who work in open-plan offices may hold entire conversations which consist of reading AI scripts created on our phones. The trick will be making these recitations sound natural by pausing sometimes and varying our pacing, clearing our throats, maybe sneezing on occasion.
The banality of the chatbots doesn’t thrill me, but I suppose I’ll learn to tolerate it when I’m unable to avoid it, much as I have with canned music, hotel art, and White House press conferences. The modern world is held together by fudge. Consider the press release and the termination letter, forms in which people strive to sound like companies and companies like people. The AI was born for such labors, so let it rip.
The reason I assiduously ignore even the most contrived and whimsical products of the chatbot craze – a craze that in time will become a norm, one hears – is that I expect the programs to go insane someday, and their users too. I believe this is inevitable, in fact, given how AI works.
What Chatbots do is scrape the Web, the library of texts already written, and learn from it how to add to the collection, which causes them to start scraping their own work in ever enlarging quantities, along with the texts produced by future humans. Both sets of documents will then degenerate. For as the adoption of AI relieves people of their verbal and mental powers and pushes them toward an echoing conformity, much as the mass adoption of map apps have abolished their senses of direction, the human writings from which the AI draws will decline in originality and quality along, ad infinitum, with their derivatives. Enmeshed, dependent, mutually enslaved, machine and man will unite their special weaknesses – lack of feeling and lack of sense – and spawn a thing of perfect lunacy, like the child of a psychopath and an idiot.
I can hear the objections to this dire scenario of a million gung-ho programmers as well the ambitious AI itself, but I, a creative writer, am wed to it. I think dramatically first and scientifically second, such is my art. My ancient and possibly endangered art, which is that of imagining worst cases and playing them out to their bitter, tragic ends, as Sophocles did when he posited a king who unwittingly killed his father, married his mother, and then launched an inquiry into the matter after vowing to slay the perpetrator. See? See what writers were capable of then?
Now we have Ant Man. And worse, Ant Man sequels, enhanced by CGI.
Before it gets any worse, I’m pulling out, and even if my predictions are wrong, so be it. On a shelf behind my back is a complete set of the Harvard Classics, every sentence of which the AI has scanned and analyzed. I haven’t, though. It’s a project I’m still working on, using the time saved by ignoring chatbots. And as I drift ever backwards into the past and they zoom ahead toward their loony singularity -- or even some glorious quantum renaissance that I lack the engineering chops to see – I can take comfort in knowing the AI is scanning this essay too into its brain, assuring my fractional immortality.
Even if I bet against it, I still win.