Help—AI Algorithms Stole My Keyboard!

I have seen the future of writing. And it might not include me, but I can always clean up stray punctuation.

We all know automation is threaded through today’s workforce, from Amazon robots picking your favorite paper towels off shelves in a galaxy far, far away, to artificial intelligence (AI) reading your x-rays with a precision that many radiologists can’t approach.

But we writers thought that soulless machines, bland blocks of code, couldn’t invade the field of creatives. Our work takes a unique combination of insight and awareness, experiment and structure, flash and incubation not afforded to the canned collection of inputs that machine learning extracted from countless texts. Doesn’t it?

Not so fast, me hearties. You may have heard of GPT-3, a language-prediction AI that has devoured mountains of text, fiction and non, so that when fed some kind of text anew, it can draw upon its wide database of how particulars of expression are built, and spit out some new material relevant to the initial input.

This is substantively more clever—and repeatable—than those legendary monkeys finally typing a Shakespeare play after eons of gibberish. But surely the unseen hand here is just dry bones wielding a dull brush, not a vibrant painter of imagery and language? Not exactly. Not Margaret Atwood yet, but if Margaret were a four-year-old today, she might get into weaving as a backup profession.

I had a chance to try a beta of Sudowrite, a creative writing tool based on GPT-3. And the results were intriguing, if not unsettling.

I wrote a couple of goofy paragraphs for Sudo AI to get cooking:

The ogre was moody today. Every one of his horns felt itchy. His mother hadn’t called him in two weeks. His oldest child lit a village on fire yesterday, trying to cook some marshmallows.
But the worst was his painting! All his ideas, bright in the mind, came out derivative and dull. He needed a change.

I asked the Wormhole function (which then gives you five paragraphs of distinctly different elaborations on your prompt, trying to harmonize tone, characters and voice) of the software to provide me with some more story strides; I chose one of the five:

Ogre turned to his advisor and asked, “What do you see in my painting?”
The advisor paused in the middle of feeding himself from the tub of acid.
“I see…darkness,” he said, eyes flashing deep within his skull. “I see a tribe of cowards making a garden in a forest. A tribe of cowards—no, it’s actually a tribe of cows. But belligerent cows, with nasty attitudes. I think they are protesting the price of Netflix subscriptions for bovines.

I accepted the AI’s first three Wormhole sentences, but then meddled: Sudo gave me a tribe of cowards, but I decided that wasn’t as fanciful as a tribe of belligerent cows, which I edited in. Then I put forth:

The ogre pondered. “Yes, but what does that have to do with me?”

My advisor, abandoning caution through the Wormhole, let loose:

The advisor stood on a stool, letting the acid eat from his ripped robe and slippers down to the bone. “You are the darkness in their garden, the anger behind the bovine protest. You are the beast at the doorstep, the teacher that will teach us all lessons. But above all—you are the ooze that will devour this section of the canvas, because no one has made anything creative in ages, and the old ideas stink.”

Always good to ponder the words of someone on acid, or someone with acid on them. I agreed and offered my advisor a 10% raise in the story.

The program then suggested that the ogre should fight his oldest child. Here’s part of that:

“Is that wise?” the advisor gagged. “He’s got horns like a gazelle. A merciless killer.”
“If you want me to paint anything worthwhile, I’ll have to win this battle,” the ogre stated.
“Don’t forget my raise.”

I should have advised that ogre to never make personnel promises you can’t keep, but too late on the raise.

What if you get bogged down at some plot point? Sudo AI dodges bogs by giving you the Twist function, which supplies you with a number of varying paths. Here are some small excerpts of some twists (the full excerpts are too long for the post):

• The ogre discovers that he’s not an ogre at all; he’s a Tcho-Tcho, a race of dwarves who’ve been living underground the whole time.
• The advisor is the brother, who thinks he is the ogre.
• The king’s brother is really the king’s long-lost son; the advisor is really a demon sent by his father to con the king out of his fortune [Sudo seems to have decided the ogre is a king]

Or left wanting for some piquant spicing, you could choose a word and use the Describe function to elaborate on the selected term. I chose “advisor” here:

• Advisor is a tall man with a tousled beard and approachable smile. His eyes look like a dragon’s—he’s pasty white and jaundiced.
• His breath even carries the smell of old parchment, the stale odor of a library that’s been locked up for decades.

or, with gusto (and a pileus):

• He was a little old man covered in ash and soot, with a wrinkled, crinkled face and skin as taut as a drum. He had a beard of celery, callused hands, and a pileus made of vegetable leaves. He wore plaid clothing from the chest up and straw sandals from the waist down.

If you read the Joanna Penn Sudowrite article linked above, you can see the AI software offers other intriguing story-building functions. That article also looks at some of the broader ramifications and applications of such software. Since the company’s founder is the interviewee, he is judicious with disclaimers about such software “replacing” writers or it being used to flood markets—or at least Amazon—with haphazardly written self-published novels and stories.

I’m agnostic about those matters for now, but in seeing how the program rapidly produced variant story developments and characters in my frothy tale, I sensed both danger and delight. I see how a stuck writer could become unglued by seeing provocative hints on pushing a story forward, or become beguiled by a character trait or behavior they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And use the suggestions, with modifications. Or none?

Many of the suggestions from software functions were clumsily worded or simply “off,” but many did give me pause to think, “Now that’s a [phrase, character, development, etc.] I wouldn’t have come up with,” or wouldn’t have taken to that degree or style. I should have taken the time to try to write something other than this fanciful tale to see where “serious” writing would go, but my beta ran out before I tried.

Check the software out, if you’re interested. Let me know if this is a great new notion or the downfall of existence. I can fall back on being a bartender if this writing thing doesn’t work out (though I hear that robot bartenders are on the ascendance).

[Author’s Note: All of the manipulated electrons in this post are the handiwork of the writer, other than the specified AI entries. But how can you be sure? Check your pileus.]

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8 thoughts on “Help—AI Algorithms Stole My Keyboard!

  1. Thanks for sharing, Tom. I’m glad you found the Sudowrite experience intriguing. I now use it in every session to help generate sensory Descriptions although I don’t use the words directly, just riff off the ideas. Interesting times, indeed!

  2. Joanna, thank you for posting about Sudowrite (and all your other AI posts, and indeed, for all the help you’ve given writers over the years). Yep, the program is fascinating, though at times it gave me a bit of that “uncanny valley” unease.

    I was struck by some of the suggestions because they did have the feel of creative bolts and jolts that you spontaneously get when writing sometimes—I could see it being useful to many types of writers.

    But still scary.

  3. In 1999 (I’d been building websites for almost 5 years) everyone I knew said “You’re going to need to find another job; web designers are obsolete now that [insert one of many DIY web tools that already existed at that early date] makes it possible for anyone to build their own website.”

    I think not.

    Those tools helped those who were never going to hire a pro anyway, and I’m delighted for them. Other tools, ostensibly my downfall, have become arrows in my quiver, not arrows making me quiver. Ho.

    I recently made enough money on a web project (using, in fact, one of the many DIY tools I highly respect) to buy even more clamps for my woodshop. My grasp of concepts beyond the basics will always make me valuable to those who need those concepts.

    You’re writers. Extrapolate as you see fit.

  4. Joel, your quivering arrow hits home—pronounced skills do have a way of rising to the top, even if there are electronic challengers armed with tools still developing.

    However, I do wonder if when these kinds of AI tools become more sophisticated and proliferate, both of which they are likely to do, that wouldn’t discourage some younger people, who are still developing their writing skills? Might a percentage of them feel, “What’s the point?” Not sure.

    I will keep extrapolating though, if only because I like the sound of the word.

  5. Recently a woodworking smart person I watch on YouTube raised the question, if people are only exposed to low quality tools, might some of them decide not to take up woodworking and miss out on what might have been something marvelous for them?

    Well, sure, maybe. But when you started writing, when I started writing, were we competing with AI?

    Nah. We were in the shadow of William ForCryingOutLoud Shakespeare. Isaac Asimov. Hemingway. Burns. Browning. All the other names on your shelves and mine.

    If that didn’t convince you your efforts were futile, was an AI going to stop us from writing?

  6. Ahh, now I’m on to you (and by you, I mean, you, BinaryMan): this isn’t Joel writing these replies, it’s an AI! I can tell by a certain curve in your question mark—definitively artificial.

    But yes, I think people will always be writing stories of some kind, whether incorporating these new tools wholly, partially, or going back to quill pen and ink. (If it was good enough for Willy the Shake, then…). I am likely feeling an artificial wistfulness for times past that aren’t even past or future nostalgia or some other condition that needs a good term attached.

    The murkiness of what’s to come is probably what has me a bit unsettled, but then again, murk is pretty much what’s been to come since my forbears decided to stop being algae and make a better living. (My parents are gone, so they won’t be offended by algal comments.)

  7. But will your Al-Gal be offended? [insert two drums and a cymbal here]

    I think anything unsettling and open-ended is going to pinch a bit more now that we’re living it in nearly everything.

    Please note that Joel is writing these comments, and that I am not a robot or artificial entity of any kind. He is absolutely writing them.

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