Have the robots finally come for our jobs?
It wasn’t long after the public debut of the artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT that some people I follow on social media started to get worried. Here was a tool that could, with very little input, churn out writing in any style or genre in a fraction of the time it would take a human writer to do. Was this the end of human creativity? Had the robots finally come for our jobs?
I wanted to see what the fuss was about and if this sophisticated piece of technology could replace me. So, I headed over to OpenAI’s website and I asked the chatbot to write a piece of fiction using the same premise as my story “Bad Air and Bitter Herbs”. After two prompts, here’s what it wrote:
Me: Can you write a scene from a short story about what would happen if medieval plague doctors were used to treat COVID-19 instead of modern medicine?
ChatGPT: The city was in chaos. The disease had swept through the streets, leaving death and destruction in its wake. People were desperate for a cure, and that’s when the medieval plague doctors appeared.
Dr. John was skeptical at first. The doctors were dressed in ominous black robes, with beaked masks covering their faces and canes in their hands. They seemed to be everywhere, offering their services to the sick and dying, but there was something unsettling about them.
As Dr. John watched the plague doctors work, he started to see that there was something sinister to their methods. They seemed to have a hypnotic effect on their patients, who claimed to be feeling better after just a few visits. But there was something off about their recoveries, as if they were just going through the motions.
One day, Dr. John decided to investigate further. He followed one of the doctors into a patient’s home and watched as the doctor performed a ritual, burning incense and chanting prayers. To his horror, the patient’s fever broke, but they became completely unresponsive, as if they were in a trance.
Dr. John realized with a start that the plague doctors were not what they seemed. They were using their medieval methods to control the minds of the sick and dying, manipulating them for their own mysterious purposes.
As the plague doctors continued their work, the city started to heal on the surface, but there was a darkness lurking beneath. People were returning to their normal lives, but they were no longer themselves. Dr. John was left to ponder the strange turn of events, wondering if the cure for the disease had brought with it an even greater evil.
It’s clear that while ChatGPT can mimic the mechanics of storytelling and can generate vivid descriptions, its attempts at drama are pretty clumsy (and its character names need a lot of work). But considering it took only two prompts and a mere 20 seconds to write, I can see why many writers are concerned about losing their livelihood to machines that can churn out content faster and cheaper than we ever could. This isn’t just a hypothetical question; the first picture book written and illustrated by artificial intelligence is available to buy on Amazon. And recently, the prominent science fiction journal Clarkesworld shut down submissions after they were flooded by mediocre stories written by AI. The question is no longer if we can compete with artificial intelligence in the creative marketplace—it’s how.
Even with all the panic, I’m still optimistic that human creativity will continue to outpace artificial creativity. ChatGPT can follow the formula of storytelling, but it can’t replicate the human experience. My story and the story ChatGPT wrote are very different, despite the same starting point. My original story includes references to gentrification anxiety and my own experience of a riding out a small earthquake. It goes in unexpected directions. For now, ChatGPT can copy the superficial, but it can’t go deeper.
ChatGPT and its siblings aren’t likely to win the Nobel Prize for literature any time soon, but it seems inevitable that they’re going to automate many parts of my day job: copywriting. Take for instance, this request I made to ChatGPT, asking it to write copy for a flyer promoting a small liberal arts college. Here’s what it gave me:
ChatGPT: Discover the Benefits of a Small Liberal Arts University!
Welcome to [Name of University], a vibrant community of students, faculty, and staff. At our small, liberal arts university, you’ll receive personalized attention and support from our dedicated faculty. Our interdisciplinary curriculum will help you gain a well-rounded education, develop critical thinking skills, and explore your passions.
Join our close-knit community, where you’ll have the opportunity to form lifelong connections and participate in a variety of activities. With hands-on learning experiences like research projects, internships, and community service, you’ll gain valuable real-world experience.
At [Name of University], we prepare you for a successful career by emphasizing critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills, as well as a broad range of knowledge. With unique and innovative programs, you’ll have the opportunity to specialize in your areas of interest.
Don’t miss out on the opportunities and benefits of a small, liberal arts university. Apply to [Name of University] today!
This is where I started to sweat a little. With very little input, ChatGPT spat out a block of text very similar to something I would write for my employer—in a fraction of the time.
I fully expect the first bestselling novel written entirely by an artificial intelligence tool will be published within the next five years. I also have no doubt that it will be terrible and derivative, because for now, that’s all it’s capable of — ingesting someone else’s work and then parroting it back. In the near future, AI will probably be employed by publishers looking to churn out content by the barrel to cash in on a trend or game an algorithm. But while those stories may make money and fill our screens, they’ll still just be an echo of the real thing and not the thing itself. They’ll be missing that crucial human element.
So, will artificial intelligence — the more advanced descendants of today’s AI language models — someday replace human writers like me? I figured I’d ask ChatGPT for its opinion:
Me: Will AI replace human writers?
ChatGPT: AI can assist with writing, but it is unlikely that it will replace human writers completely. While AI can generate text based on patterns and algorithms, it lacks the creativity, empathy, and intuition that human writers bring to their work. Additionally, writing is often tied to personal experiences, emotions, and cultural perspectives that are unique to each person. As a result, AI will likely continue to play a complementary role to human writers, rather than completely replacing them.
AI is very good at automating less creative writing tasks. When I asked ChatGPT what it could do better than a human writer, it was quick to cite that AI is faster and perhaps better at generating summaries, completing templated or repetitive tasks, and taking over simple things like penning headlines, captions, or lists. For people who work in the fields of copywriting or technical writing, like I do, AI will help us be more productive, and it may also be used by some organizations to consolidate jobs. Probably a little of both.
No matter where this technology takes us, I think there will always be an appetite for stories written by humans for humans. If nothing else, AI challenges us to be more creative, to think outside the box. While virtual assistants handle our email correspondence, we might find ourselves with more capacity to write the things that only we can say.
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Jonny Eberle is a human writer, podcaster, and storyteller and not a malevolent AI bent on enslaving the human race. He lives in Tacoma, WA with his family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. His writing has been published in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, and his writing podcast, Dispatches with Jonny Eberle, wherever you enjoy podcasts.
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