Have you see Flippy, the robot designed to manage the fryer in fast food restaurants? It’s pretty amazing until you watch it for a few minutes and realize how terrifyingly human it seems. It’s “artificial intelligence” or AI, and is supposed to help cook french fries better, faster, and safer. It solves several problems, like finding restaurant workers.
This came on the heels of me reading about a Stanford graduate student who created an AI program for writers called, “Coauthor.” This does not solve any problems.
The way it works is this: I write a sentence and then the AI will give me a few ideas of where I can go next. Sort of like a writing prompt. Sort of like using a calculator to figure out a restaurant bill tip. But with math, the numbers will always add up to the same answer. With writing, there is no answer; only choices to be made.
I love writing prompts and use them all the time with students. They are incredible tools to boost creativity or to simply get started. Typically, a writer will use a prompt and then they are off and running, writing of their own free will. But what if that writer felt the need for a crutch at every juncture, each decision decided by a limited series of multiple choice options provided by computer code?
It’s a compelling idea and one that infuriates me.
Computers are awesome. Computers suck.
I love computers and I enjoy coding and learning new coding languages. (I’m currently obsessed with YAML and Obisidian Dataview.) Computers have vastly enriched our lives but like most things humans create, computers have also had a detrimental effect on our lives and our brains. Who among us can truly say we are not addicted to our phones or that our first inclination to find an answer is to Google it?
This ability to find what we need (assuming that Google gives us what we need) has made us lazy. I don’t even have to get up and walk to the bookshelf to look up a word definition. In the middle of watching Serena’s last match, I could look up and see how old her daughter is. (Yes, I did this the first night of the US Open.)
First, we all got addicted to our phones; now will we lose the one thing that truly makes us human: the ability to imagine and create art?
What’s my beef?
Computer code does not have experiences. Maybe the person writing the code does, but the AI can only respond with limited knowledge. Can the code make up the way the light is flowering over the hibiscus petal that just opened this morning? Can it use a metaphor about pasta from its Italian upbringing? Can it blunder and admit something too personal? No. It’s not a person so it can’t look out over the garden and feel a sense of awe. It has no Italian grandmother or dark secret from its past to give it a lens through which to see the world.
Art requires perspective and emotion. A good story won’t just have captivating twists and turns, it makes us work at understanding it, requiring us to put some of our own experiences into the story. I want to be able to see a part of myself in a story and that is only possible when shared human experience is on the page.
It’s easy to see when a writer has gotten lazy and has put some artificial emotion in a story. It’s a turn-off because we can tell the difference. Rather, we can “feel” the difference.
Anger has driven much great writing and I for one thrive on it. I especially appreciate the kind of anger that makes us ask questions of fairness and equality, or of ourselves. Questions of why me and not them. Anger is a perfect example of how the human experience shapes our art and perspectives. Can computers get mad?
The greatest joy of writing or painting is the element of surprise. Creating art is a process of discovery; I wasn’t expecting this character to take that action, or I’m amazed at the how that brushstroke brings out more light.
Computers get no joy from a tiny character surprise. Computers have no emotion. When they do, they will cease to be code and will have become something much more terrifying.
Can AI be creative? I’m no expert, but I do comprehend that AI is always learning. I learn from watching the people around me and reading books. AI may learn within the limits of its code, but it won’t be dancing in the rain or crying at a love scene on stage. Writing and creativity require heart, brain, emotion, experience, and failure. These are uniquely human experiences. In fact, these are requirements for being human. Sure, AI can offer suggestions or prompts. But it is not a co-creator. It is more like Mad Libs, offering up phrases to fill in empty spaces without making true connections.
Go ahead, shower me with examples of writing created all by computer to see if I can tell the difference.
To me that’s not the point. It’s all about the creator and the act of creating. It’s how we learn to tap into our own imagination and come to trust in our own ideas. Just like spellcheck or predictive text does now, words that are not ours will be foisted upon us, making us doubt the direction of our thoughts.
There are I’m sure many incredible uses for AI that could move humanity forward. Let’s stop trying to mess with Art. Let’s stop thinking of the need to make art more efficient or organized.
Creating art is, by its nature, messy, uncertain, never finished, full of questions, energizing, and affecting. Art is individual and it affects us each as individuals. I like living in this world of messy imperfection.
Artificial intelligence may be great at making french fries, but let’s leave the Art to us fallible humans.
Jill Pollack is a writer and story coach who writes using computers, but not “with” a computer.