I have never been particularly excited by the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI). It seemed something remote to my everyday life, although I have undoubtedly been exposed to numerous examples without my ever knowing it.
But today, I was blown away. A friend of mine runs a book marketing agency, and he asked me and a few other writers to try out a new AI system, known as ChatGPT. He was curious to see what we would get.
The form asked me to set out a scene (location, date, time of year, other detail) and a character (gender, age, marital status and aims). I am not a fiction writer, but I made up a potential scenario on the spur of the moment.
First, here is scene setting as written entirely by AI.
I suggested the following information: poor Paris neighbourhood, autumn, 1884, school.
It replied with:
The poor Paris neighbourhood of 1884 was a dismal place. The cobblestone streets were lined with dilapidated buildings, many of which were in disrepair. The air was thick with the smell of smoke and the sound of children playing in the streets. The autumn chill was in the air, and the leaves had begun to turn a deep red and orange. The neighbourhood was home to a variety of people, from the working class to the destitute. The people of the neighbourhood were mostly immigrants, and many of them had come to Paris in search of a better life. The streets were filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, as people went about their business. At the centre of the neighbourhood was a small school. The school was a single-story building, made of brick and mortar. It was a simple structure, but it was a place of learning and hope for the children of the neighbourhood. The school was run by a small group of dedicated teachers, who worked hard to provide the children with a good education. The school was a place of refuge for the children of the neighbourhood. It was a place where they could escape the harsh realities of life in the neighbourhood. The teachers were kind and caring.
Second, here is character description as written entirely by AI.
I suggested the following information: woman, 37, teacher, widowed, wants new husband and children.
It replied with:
The woman was 37 years old, and she was a teacher. She had been widowed for a few years, and she was ready to move on with her life. She wanted to find a new husband and have children. She was a kind and gentle soul, with a warm and inviting smile. She was always willing to lend an ear to anyone who needed it, and she was a great listener. She was patient and understanding, and she had a way of making people feel comfortable and at ease. She was a hard worker, and she was dedicated to her job. She was always prepared for her classes, and she was always willing to go the extra mile for her students. She was passionate about teaching, and she was always looking for ways to make her lessons more engaging and interesting. She was a great cook, and she enjoyed trying out new recipes. She was always experimenting with different flavors and ingredients, and she was always willing to share her creations with her friends and family. She was an avid reader, and she loved to curl up with a good book. She was always looking for new authors to explore, and she was always eager to discuss her latest reads with her friends. She was an animal lover.
These passages were received in a few hours, but presumably generated in seconds.
My first reaction was a mixture of shock and admiration. How could a machine take a few small ideas and flesh them out so well?
My second reaction was more critical. Perhaps those of you who are – or were once – teachers (or who simply like good writing) will share my concerns.
The writing has a somewhat stilted feel, with repetitive and dull sentences. A high school student would undoubtedly be marked down for such lack of variety.
Would one write that ‘dilapidated’ buildings were in ‘disrepair’ as these are virtually synonyms? The descriptions feel a bit trite, with little novelty.
Too many sentences start with “She…”. Too many descriptions including the word ‘always’. There is a need for paragraphs to give the writing a sense of pace.
But nonetheless, I was fascinated. The prose of AI, like that of ordinary students or even writers, can – and will – doubtless be improved with practice and better instruction. One can expect that the same exercise repeated in a year or two would show greater sophistication.
And the implications are huge. Will our novels be written by AI in the future? Or, perhaps, written by AI and edited by novelists? Will it matter, if the reader is happy?
I have been bitten. I am fascinated by AI.
Have you seen examples of AI writing before? Do such developments worry you? Or do they excite you? How would you like to see AI developed in coming years?