Saipan — In the summer of 2020, amid the Covid-19 global onslaught, the Wall Street Journal reported the rollout of an artificial intelligence system with an innocuous if not boring name: GPT-3. Generative Pre-trained Transformer, third generation.
There are other artificial intelligence tools that can produce quite convincing fake news stories in just a few seconds. But GPT-3, to quote celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse, kicks it up a notch. GPT-3’s “ability to interact in English and generate coherent writing have been startling hardened experts.” It can “use and understand language as well as human beings do.”
How good is it?
“Research released by its maker, San Francisco- based OpenAI, has found that GPT-3 can work out analogy questions from the old SAT with better results than the average college applicant. It can generate news articles that readers may have trouble distinguishing from human-written ones.
“And it can do tasks its creators never thought about. [T]esters…have found that it can complete a half-written investment memo, produce stories and letters written in the style of famous people, generate business ideas and even write certain kinds of software code based on a plain-English description of the desired software.”
GPT-3 can also simplify English. Author David Price, who wrote the WSJ article about GPT-3, said he gave the technology a trial run: “I copied and pasted the first paragraph of George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address: ‘The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.’”
GPT-3’s translation: “I am not going to run for president.”
Price said for “a range of knowledge workers — news reporters, lawyers, coders and others — the introduction of systems like GPT-3 will likely shift their activities from drafting to editing…. It’s simple enough just to keep clicking GPT-3’s ‘generate’ button until something halfway usable appears.”
In the case of newspaper editors, they can simply enter into the system the facts, data, quotes, etc. provided by reporters, and voila! A grammatically correct, competently written, informative and fact-checked news report is ready for publishing. A journalistic dream come true.
But why stop there? If artificial intelligence, which is ever improving, can eventually (if not already) “replace” reporters, what’s stopping it from creating literature? Poetry, for instance, especially verse that is metered and rhymes. For essays and novels, the writer will, again, put in his ideas, themes, plot line, dialogues etc., and the AI system will turn them into a readable, well-structured draft.
Will it be the end of writing style as we know it?
These two passages from two iconic writers were used as examples of style by that enduring manual on the principles of the English language, Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”:
“He did not still feel week, he was merely luxuriating in that supremely gutful lassitude of convalescence in which time, hurry, doing, did not exist, the accumulating seconds and minutes and hours to which in its well state the body’s slave both waking and sleeping, now reversed and time now the lip-server and mendicant to the body’s pleasure instead of the body thrall to time’s headlong course.”
That was Faulkner on languor.
Here’s Hemingway:“Manuel drank his brandy. He felt sleepy himself. It was too hot to go out into the town. Besides there was nothing to do. He wanted to see Zurito. He would go to sleep while he waited.”
Writing or literary style is neither “technique” nor “tricks.” Style is the writer. How s/he sees the world. The way s/he thinks. The attitudes, as E.B. White would put it, of his/her mind.
So I wonder. Can an AI system, however powerful, write with style? That is, with a distinct personality and a singular vision? Only Faulkner and Hemingway could write the passages mentioned above. Likewise, F. Scott Fitzgerald alone could write the following:
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable vision to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
“Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something — an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.”
A writing machine powered by an ever-improving artificial intelligence will end the tyranny of the black screen. It could also mean the death of the (human) author. But once we reached that point of human history, will anyone know what they’re missing?
Nowadays, besides their manufacturers and collectors, does anyone care that typewriters are all but obsolete?