What are AI writers for?24 May 2021
Imagine this scenario: you’re putting your child to bed, and they say “Can you tell me a bedtime story please?” They’re not talking to you, they’re talking to their bedside AI speaker.
Ok Google, tell me a bedtime story where I’m a strong knight slaying a powerful dragon, saving the kingdom!
Ok, this one is called “$(name) the mighty dragon slayer” are you sitting comfortably?
The next day, a book is delivered to your house. It’s last night’s bedtime story, complete with illustrations. You place it next to the others on the bookshelf.
There is a future where your AI assistant will be able to tell your child an original bedtime story using anything they can imagine as an input, all whilst you shop on Amazon for something to fill the void.
Is that future just around the corner?
If you read my previous post about the writing of the book, you may have seen the fake AI-generated reviews about the book. This one is incredibly concise:
Interesting concept. The writing is not the best, however. ― The Instrument
If you only take one thing away from this article, it’s this. The writing isn’t the best. But it is possible to generate believable prose and even some great snippets of text.
However, there’s a caveat: the generated text needs to be curated by a human. Without the rules that we used to write this short story the text wouldn’t have been recognisable as a cohesive narrative.
One example that comes to mind is the junk text that had to be removed. Occasionally when generating some text the AI would spit out gibberish. Not a random string of disorganised words posing as a sentence, but a stream of characters that looked like there had been an accident at the keyboard factory.
The AI also had this tendency to repeat itself over and over. Writing the same sentence multiple times, or repeating a previous paragraph word for word. Maybe it just thought what it wrote was so good you’d want to see it again.
There’s one section of the book there is a string of 10 sentences that each start with ‘I’, and 3 of those (in a row) start ‘I should’ve’. Not quite a rival to Tolkien just yet.
On the other end of the scale, there were (what I think) some good passages. Ones that were creative and interesting.
Anyway, I take souls to their final resting place. A place called the ‘cosmic netherworld.’ It’s supposed to be some grandiose place of eternal bliss. But our souls conspire with the chaos. I’m the only person that’s able to take souls there.
A fog started to swirl around me. The shroud of darkness took hold of me and I could no longer feel the rain hitting my skin, or my clothes soaked with water. I felt something in the air - like a silent scream.
I took a deep breath and paused. I could feel my soul – my heart - was ready to give in. Thunder cracked as the rain started pouring down, just as I was about to drink.
When I took a sip, I felt my thirst all the more. It hurt and burned my tongue, but it felt like a salve – a soothing balm for my tormented soul.
Dialogue was also believable:
Cautiously, I picked up. “Hello?” I answered, slurping some ramen noodles.
There was some silence. Then a very strange voice on the other line said, “Is Grim there?”
“Who is this?”, I replied.
“I’m Daisy. I’m…”
The voice on the other line appeared to be distressed. She said with an anxious tone, “something terrible has happened. I-…It’s very, very bad. I-…”
She paused for a moment.
She then asked me, “Can you come over now?”
“I’m at the city hall.”
“The city hall? What are you at the city hall for?”
“Hurry, please hurry.”
“What’s going on?”
“Please, it’s absolutely urgent.”
She paused again. There was more silence. She said in a heartbroken voice, “I’m dead.”
If the current state of the art AI needs some human curation to make it readable for more than a few paragraphs, where’s the benefit?
I’ve heard people say a few times that AI is mostly useful as a co-pilot for writers (most recently Tom Scott). And I tend to agree with that sentiment, at least for now. That doesn’t mean that it can’t create something of reasonable quality, but that the most useful use case is when a human prompts the AI for ideas. For authors it might be to help with writers’ block, finding new directions for the narrative, or creating new scenes they hadn’t imagined before.
One area I think would really be able to take advantage of AI writers is children’s books. Specifically existing IP. If an AI could generate short stories of Peppa Pig all it would take is a few tweaks here and there, some illustrations, and boom! A never ending amount of books. Hell they could create a subscription service so a child could get a new book every day.
I could also see fanfiction writers using AI to try and emulate the writing style of the author of the original IP.
Which then leads on to questions of who gets the credit. And what about copyright? What about Grim Tales? Am I now an author because my name is slapped on a paperback, even though the writer was a computer? Does my relatively small contribution make a difference? Right now I think it’s the case that the person who ‘drives’ the software to create the end product owns the work, and that the human contribution is the key. But I think we might find tricky situations in the future where the line is quite grey and blurry, especially when humans get more hands-off.
Do I think AI will be writing stories like the bedtime scenario? Firstly, I kind of hope not. But to actually answer the question - maybe. I certainly don’t think it will be good enough for that in the near future at least.
If you want to read a more in-depth look at GPT-3’s creative writing, I strongly recommend reading Gwern’s article on the subject.