Writers’ bloc: Testing AI’s limits, by Charles Assisi
The new programs may learn faster and better than we expected, but good prose cannot be crafted by checking off boxes, Assisi says. In this week’s Life Hacks.
I’ve been a steady user of ChatGPT more or less since its debut. I have used it to help me write, and I have found it limited but useful.
Which is why it confuses me to hear talk of how this kind of generative artificial intelligence (AI) program may “replace writers”.
I can’t speak for the host of other professions AI is said to be on the point of replacing, but as for writing, I do believe that a piece of good prose is a work of art.
I say this with conviction, having worked across newsrooms for over two decades. I say it from years of interacting with those in leadership positions — somehow, good leaders write well.
On studying them closely, it becomes evident why. While everyone can think, argue and deploy metaphors in speech, writing requires a brutal kind of exactitude. It strips away all cover; there is nowhere to hide a poor argument; no room in which to run around in circles.
Consider an economist such as Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, director at the thinktank Artha Global and former executive editor of Mint (the business paper of HT Media, which also publishes the Hindustan Times).
Just how did he write his award-winning columns on hard economics that made the lay person sit up and read? When I asked him this once, he offered some interesting perspective. “While everybody provides the data, I need a take and I need to think hard about it. These pieces of data must be compared across time, countries, space and even the indices. It is very important not to put too much in there. Assuming there are 5,000 data points, I need to cull the five that matters and kill the 4,995 that don’t matter,” he said. “And then I need to convey clearly where I stand vis-à-vis the consensus view.”
This requires effort, clarity of thought, and conviction. And this is true for writers across domains.
Now, AI can learn — faster and better than we’d expected, as we’re seeing with Midjourney’s art. But it seems unlikely to me that a craft such as this one can be taught to a program that generates content by checking off boxes one by one.
As the author Stephen King points out in his outstanding book, On Writing (2000), there are no thumb rules in this craft that can be followed blindly. Take the one that says the ideal sentence ought to contain 10 to 12 words. “This sentence has five words,” King writes. “Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals— sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
That’s creativity. The tension between the ideal and the riffs on the ideal are what make this passage work.
It gets even tougher when one has a story to tell. Here’s a cliff hanger you might recognise:
“Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains. He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights of the dressing table. He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower... Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat. There had been a nervous giggle from the shadows at the back of the room. A girl’s voice said, ‘Poor Mr. Bond, you must be tired. Come to bed.’”
I’ve been unable to recreate anything that comes close, using AI. Here’s a sample from among those generated by ChatGPT: “Bond stepped into the sleek, modern bathroom of his luxury hotel suite, a haze of steam already swirling through the air. His mission had been a demanding one, filled with high-stakes espionage and close encounters with danger. Now, he needed a moment of respite, a brief pause to wash away the grime of the field and regain his composure.”
There’s no chance one would mistake it for the work of Ian Fleming, is there?
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)