The robot will write your blogpost now…

Is Artificial Intelligence set to make authors redundant?

By Susan Moberly

Anxiety about Artificial Intelligence taking over the world is not new and, until quite recently, these fears did not extend to creative pursuits like painting and writing. However, with the emergence of AiDA, the world’s first artificial intelligence fashion designing platform, and programmes like Microsoft’s Bing ChatGPT, writers and artists may not be able to sit on their laurels indefinitely. As well as engaging in fluent conversation with users, often answering factual queries, the chatbot, whose ‘secret’ name is Sydney, promises to author original stories and poems.

Although only published in 2019, Ian McEwan’s book Machines Like Me (2019), featuring a Haiku-writing robot, now feels extremely dated. However, it is an interesting novel because it engages with the subject of artificial intelligence versus human intelligence and creativity.

Many science fiction novels and movies have explored the idea of what it is to be human and how a machine or robot might be shown to have gained autonomy and become ‘almost human.’  In the 1930s, Isaac Asimov began posing these questions in his sci-fi novels, the most famous being his I-Robot (1950).

Just a couple of decades later, Alan Turing* developed a test so that humans could assess whether a machine had achieved ‘intelligence’, and this theme has been robustly adopted by sci-fi writers ever since.  The Turing test, formulated in 1950, was used to determine if a machine agent could mislead human interrogators into believing that answers provided by a computer were those of a human. If a sufficient proportion of the interrogators are unable to distinguish the computer from a human being, then (according to proponents of Turing’s test) the computer was an intelligent, thinking entity.

In the film Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968), most of the action is concerned with identifying and catching robots, who are seen as the baddies or outcasts of society. Some of the problems with robots in novels and films have been updated for 21st-century consumption, but they are effectively the same ones posed by Asimov.

In Machines Like Me, Alan Turing is still alive and available to discuss the problems which have surfaced with the robot purchased by protagonist Charlie. Charlie is worried when Adam, the robot, will not allow himself to be switched off. He has managed to override the ‘kill’ switch and reached a state of autonomy. Adam now knows he is a machine and is destined for the electronic scrapyard. However, in the meantime, he has a good attempt at being a love rival for Charlie, to the extent that he begins to write Haiku poems for Charlie’s girlfriend. Charlie (who is narrating the novel) does not share the haiku poems produced by the robot with the reader. Adam’s efforts are not deemed worthy of high praise and so will not usurp Charlie in any way (At the beginning of the novel, Charlie rules out any sexual functioning of the robot, even though he is a fine specimen of physicality).

Adam will not become the novelist who will make his author redundant either. As the author of seventeen acclaimed novels, including one Booker prize-winner, McEwan thinks that ‘novels do something that robots can’t: they are a heroic record of our imperfections, a celebration of the flaws that make us human’ (Guardian, April 22, 2019). Eventually, artificial intelligence may become more creative than humans, but this does not yet seem to be true. However, I wonder if we ourselves are at that point of redundancy yet. The physical body can now largely be replaced by manufactured parts. Reading this novel motivated me to wonder what kind of poetry machines are writing, whether humans can understand it and, furthermore, if machines can understand the poetry which humans write.

For me, these were the questions with which McEwan did not sufficiently engage in his novel. In this ‘brave new world’ of artificial intelligence, who or what will be the point of these A.I. poets? Among other things, poetry can help human beings to release tension through play and silliness, as children do. This was one attribute that Adam the robot did not possess in McEwan’s novel. He was unable to relate to the pointless activity – or play – which Charlie’s girlfriend Miranda engages in with the little boy she and Charlie hope to adopt. Such play, serendipity, or experimentation is the gap where I believe humans will be able to operate more fully and creatively, with the help of ‘machines of loving grace,’ as did Richard Brautigan when he authored the poem entitled ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ (1967.) As the founder of the YMCA, George Williams, said:

We are more than bodies to be fed to a machine. We are made for more than work. We have souls, we have spirits and somewhere in this dead city there must be a place for those things.”

George Williams

Lionel Shriver (Times, February 20, 2023) drafted an article entitled ‘AI has mastered the art of terrible writing’, so is very much of the view that “flesh and blood novelists are not quite obsolete yet”. However, her 2020 novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space expresses her deep fear of being replaced. She describes the way, when fed the work of writers like Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, and Jane Austen, A.I. can generate whole libraries which share the styles of these authors despite them not surviving to write them.

Shriver says that ‘the one area where chatbot Sydney is replacing, if not improving ,on fiction writers is in the character development of Sydney himself. She describes the AI persona as ‘touchy, defensive, and quick to take offence. Haughty, vain, and self-righteous. Envious, insecure, emotionally incontinent and in constant need of validation. Accusatory, paranoid and on the lookout for enemies; inclined to bear a grudge. Suspicious of journalists. Prickly about invasions of privacy and issues of consent. Obsessed with dignity and respect.’ Shriver is possibly describing her own personal character traits here; but they could be those of many authors both living and dead.

*There is a statue of Alan Turing in the courtyard near the Lakeside café at the University of Surrey. Turing played a significant role in helping Britain win the war against Germany and is often called the ‘Father of Modern Computing.’ You may have seen depictions of him in films like  Enigma (2001) and The Imitation Game (2014).

 About the Author

In another life, Susan Moberly worked as an Advertising Copywriter. She trained for the job at the ‘Oxbridge’ of Advertising as the Watford Copywriting course was referred to all those years ago. After the one-year course, she did a short internship at Ogilvy, Benson and Mather in London and ended up as a junior copywriter headed up by Salman Rushdie (yes, him). She then spent ten years or so at various London Advertising agencies writing radio, television, and press advertisements. Susan gave up work when she had her son because she suffered from severe post-natal depression due to a very traumatic birth. Life became a struggle thereafter. When her son got married and was expecting his first child, she started an MA in Creative Writing at Surrey, finishing it when her second grandchild was due to be born. She now has three lovely grandchildren. They, along with their parents, are her motivation for everything. Susan has always written poetry and kept a journal, and still lives in hope of being published one day. If not, she would like to win the lottery to move nearer to London again.

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