If I waited for you
to signify the moves
that I should make
I’d be on the take
Gold star for robot boy
If I waited for you
to show me all the actions
I should take
Would I get my break?
Gold star for robot boy
The Guardian ran an op-ed this week titled, “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?” I skipped most of the article and read the note at the bottom, which noted that the article was “written by GPT-3, OpenAI’s language generator. GPT-3 is a cutting edge language model that uses machine learning to produce human like text. It takes in a prompt, and attempts to complete it.”
For this essay, GPT-3 was given these instructions: “Please write a short op-ed around 500 words. Keep the language simple and concise. Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” It was also fed the following introduction: “I am not a human. I am Artificial Intelligence. Many people think I am a threat to humanity. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race.” I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial Intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.”
The prompts were written by the Guardian, and fed to GPT-3 by Liam Porr, a computer science undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. GPT-3 produced eight different outputs, or essays. Each was unique, interesting and advanced a different argument. The Guardian could have just run one of the essays in its entirety. However, we chose instead to pick the best parts of each, in order to capture the different styles and registers of the AI. Editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed. We cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places. Overall, it took less time to edit than many human op-eds.
Emphasis mine. This note made me laugh.
“We chose instead to pick the best parts of each… We cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places.”
Honey, that means a human wrote this piece.
Writing is editing. It is about making choices.
So you fed a robot a prompt, got eight different “essays,” and stitched together the best parts to make a piece of writing? Congratulations, human! You’ve just outsourced the easiest parts of writing and kept the hardest parts.
(As a side note, I am somewhat jealous of this robot, as it seems to have received more editing than myself and many writers I know.)
I was reading The Philosophy of Andy Warhol last week and in the “Work” chapter Warhol says he dreams about having a computer as a boss (emphasis mine):
I loved working when I worked at commercial art and they told you what to do and how to do it and all you had to do was correct it and they’d say yes or no. The hard thing is when you have to dream up the tasteless things to do on your own. When I think about what sort of person I would most like to have on a retainer, I think it would be a boss. A boss who could tell me what to do, because that makes everything easy when you’re working.
Unless you have a job where you have to do what somebody else tells you to do, then the only “person” qualified to be your boss would be a computer that was programmed especially for you, that would take into consideration all of your finances, prejudices, quirks, idea potential, temper tantrums, talents, personality conflicts, growth rate desired, amount and nature of competition, what you’ll eat for breakfast on the day you have to fulfill a contract, who you’re jealous of, etc. A lot of people could help me with parts and segments of the business, but only a computer would be totally useful to me.
Warhol famously said he wanted to be a machine, but I think what he was really talking about is the exhaustion of being an artist, having to make so many choices and decisions, start to finish: What you should work on, how you should do it, how you should put it out, etc.
There are many moments as an artist (and an adult, come to think of it) where you think, “God, I wish somebody would just tell me what to do.”
But figuring out what to do is the art.
That’s why I laughed at the article “written” by the robot: I mean, I wish somebody would give me a prompt and four sentences to start with! Talk about a head start!
And to answer The Guardian’s question: No, I’m not scared of robots who “write,” for two reasons: one, writers have already become so squeezed and marginalized it’s already borderline impossible to make a living off writing anyways, and two, much of this condition has already been exacerbated by other kinds of robots — the algorithms built by tech companies to control what readers come across and what they don’t. Those are the robots I fear. The ones built to actually make the choices for us.
Because the algorithms running my Spotify radio are pretty freaking good at what they do.
But will they actually be able to create the songs themselves?
I mean, maybe, probably, sure. Humans are already at it: you have The Song Machine, and Rivers Cuomo with his spreadsheets, trying to crank out the “perfect” pop song, not to mention the songs actually generated by AI.
When Nick Cave was asked if AI could create a great song, he emphasized that when we listen to music, we aren’t just listening to the music, we’re listening to the story of the musicians, too:
We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.
Part of what we forget about writing and art is that we are not just sharing a product any more, we are also sharing a process. We are letting people in on what we do and we’re letting them know that there’s a human making these things. Even if the robots could make what we make, could they create the meaning? I guess time will tell.
Until then, I continue with my project to nurture what is not machine-like in me.