Generative AI is certainly generating is a fuss. As an author, I think that fuss is justified and not fussy enough.
This is a moment in human history that will make or break us as a species. AI has the potential to revolutionise every part of our lives, from diagnosing diseases more accurately and cheaply to providing cutting edge education in the remotest and poorest parts of the world. From removing the need for low skilled, dehumanising jobs to predicting catastrophic events. It truly could save our species and our planet.
Then again, the prescience of dystopian novelists never ceases to bring a chill to the childlike exuberance around any new technology. When I first read ‘We’ by Yevgeny Zamyatn, I was stunned to discover that it was written in 1920. It tells of a time when everyone is watched by cameras, living in glass houses, and all our relationships are monitored by an unseen controller. This was long before CCTV and the internet. Go back another century to 1817 and Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, which is credited with being the first science fiction novel. Playing God and creating life was the theme here and we can see how this is playing out today with stem cell research, IVF, and augmented humans. There are more recent novels such as ‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is told from the perspective of the AI friend – friend being a rather disingenuous concept. All of these novels foretell what could go wrong if we allow AI to follow the instinct we have programmed into it: to learn, never stop learning and to seek out new ways of learning. Laudable attributes in a human, more worrying in an artificial, possibly unstoppable, being.
So why does this bother me as an author? My concern is three-fold: I worry for the inevitable tsunami of poor-quality AI generated work that is about to engulf us, I worry about the relentless theft of my own work, and I worry about the loss of pleasure in the creative process.
It’s often been a bugbear of many a writer when someone casually says, ‘I’ve always thought I should write a book’. I feel a gut punch in that moment and it’s all I can do not to unleash a volley of paper-cut condemnations on the unwitting person who has dared to step onto my turf. Writers know that creating a book requires years of work, angst, and determination to bring it to fruition, without any guarantee that it will ever be read. We suffer for our passion. Now, we’re going to be surrounded by low-grade, predictable pap that can be churned out in an evening and be made instantly available around the world. Sounds like every writer’s dream. Not if you want to offer something original and meaningful, and not if you want to reach readers who will spend their money on work that adds to our rich cultural history.
Writers are skilled, talented, gritty professionals who are usually underpaid and frequently dismissed by the publishing industry. No wonder so many writers have opted to self-publish. Unfortunately, AI could be about to hijack many of the gains that organisations such as the Alliance for Independent Authors (ALLi), Society of Authors (SoA) and Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) have made. These hugely supportive organisations have worked hard to protect the income and rights of authors, generously sharing knowledge and information to empower authors to earn a living. AI will undermine and attack the copyright for authors, voraciously searching the internet for content and using it without the permission of the creators. Of course, the same is true for all creatives: artists, photographers, songwriters, cartoonist, dancers… We are living through an age where ownership of original ideas and content is under attack.
And there is nothing we can do to stop it. Really, nothing. Because it’s already happening and no one knows how to stop it. Not even the AI companies.
A phrase I have heard over and over in the past six months is that the genie is out of the bottle. It feels more like the genie is a parasitic dictator wearing a clown mask and clutching a tempting bag full of sweets. It’s not that we’ve all been ignoring the bottle, we didn’t even know there was a bottle being opened. This is the most disturbing part of all this: it is happening without our permission. I will say here, and wherever I can, AI programmers, developers, and companies – you do not have my permission to use my words, images, ideas, or thoughts. They are mine. They are what make me human, make me me, and make me an author.
I love technology and am fascinated by what AI can bring to our lives. I want to work with it, to explore what it can contribute to create a better world and greater equality. I do not want to be subjected to yet another money-hungry set of privileged individuals (usually white men) exploiting my creativity and the creativity of others for personal gain. We need to do better as a species and the current terrifying lurch towards an uncontrolled rise of AI will undoubtedly lead to horrific consequences. No, I’m not being over-dramatic. We’ve already seen the first case of AI instructing a user to harm themselves.
And, ultimately, AI cannot enjoy the process of creativity. It can never understand what it feels like to find an idea, spend years working it through, tussling with the problems it throws up, and finally crafting a piece that comes from deep within you. The creative process requires emotion, understanding, and empathy. None of which AI can ever have in its own right. It can take our words but it can never access our memories, connections, or unique perspectives. This is the one thing I will never lose to AI but I know that my ability to operate in the creative space will be severely compromised by the unfettered growth of this technology.
As writers and creatives, we need to protect our work and to create original pieces that are ethical and contribute to our understanding of what it is to be human. We need to make a fuss and we need to make it now before AI has blurred the lines so much that we can’t see when we step off the cliff.