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A Supervillain Examines AI: Prologue

Silhouette of a human head, but displayed as if it had been stamped into a motherboard.
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The Internet is all about Artificial Intelligence these days. At least, the parts of it I hang out on. ChatGPT and Bard and an army of other AI conversation bots are filling up all the empty space with speculation about how AI will replace human art, human writing, and other human creative things, because AI Bots are cheaper and less argumentative than human beings. There are all kinds of AI Bots out there specifically designed to draw things that are really pissing off actual artists, because they don’t actually draw, they take pieces of images from things that are already drawn and put them together in ways that can be genuinely interesting—but they are also unequivocally pieces of pictures that someone already drew, and they’re not all taken from public domain work. There is actual plagiarism occurring when those programs are used, and there are actual artists who are being harmed by it.

These instances of outright theft occur because programmers weren’t actually thinking about the implications of what they were doing,1 but on top of the “oops it looks like we stole art” aspect, even if you assumed the existence of an ethically trained artbot, there’s also the very real prospect of a bunch of people who usually pay artists and designers money deciding to use these bots instead… mostly because they’re cheaper than artists and designers, but also because a lot of people who hire artists and designers tend to resent having to do so. Whether or not that’s actually going to happen isn’t really a question: it’s already happening. People are already talking about how they’ve lost customers to ChatGPT. Buzzfeed has already fired writers and decided to use ChatGPT instead, I assume because it’s cheaper and easier for them to use the generic drivel AI Bots can generate in seconds than it is to teach writers to burn away pieces of their own souls in order to create the same level of generic drivel. The question is whether this is a permanent thing that will be with us always, or if at some point the penchant for AIs to report incorrect “facts” when it can’t find any correct ones get enough companies sued that they will go back to hiring humans again.2

@KarlreMarks framed it brilliantly in this tweet:

Tweet text: "Humans doing the hard jobs on minimum wage while the robots write poetry and paint is not the future I wanted."
Actual tweet here.

For the most part I haven’t really done much more than watch the back and forth. I have mixed feelings about this thing everyone is calling AI: on the one hand I fully agree with the artists who state that the AI drawing bots aren’t actually “drawing,” they’re essentially remixing. And the programmers are stealing artist’s material in order to train their bots. Once upon a time the idea of remixing bothered me, but I’ve seen too many brilliant mashups to believe that any more–I’m not opposed to the idea of remixing content in order to create something new, but I do think the only way to correctly do this, for an AI tool, is to restrict the “learning pool” to public domain works and any work that has been specifically licensed to be fed into an AI learning feed. Nothing else, and if you get caught using something else, you should be sued into oblivion and back. And then sued again, because look, you’re back.

And I absolutely agree that this is giving a bunch of companies an excuse to no longer hire those “troublesome creative types” in order to make their pretty logos and other shiny customer lures, and it is at least in part because there is a basic contempt for creative types in the business world and any chance to screw those dirty artistic hippies over will be full-throatedly supported by a very specific and influential set of assholes.

On the other hand… as an artist (musician, cartoonist, and writer in various combinations at various times) who has had to work off a shoestring budget and limited toolset in order to get things done, I sometimes find it hard to see a clear defining line between those tools and other tools I’ve used in the past. When I couldn’t find a band, I did what I could by myself, and filled in the cracks with what I could find. No drummer? Drum machine. Or loops. No studio engineer? Well, that’s how home studies were created.

These two hands I keep referring to don’t really appear as if they can coexist together very well. It’s messy. It’s so messy that people are working very hard to make it appear not messy by taking a “you are either with me on this or my eternal enemy from this point forward” stance. It’s already ugly but it’s going to get brutally so.

And now, and this is where we get to the meat of the matter, there are AI Programs that are specifically designed to write stories.

OK, so this one is a little more directly in my ballpark. I write stories! This means I am theoretically in competition for eyeballs with people using AI to generate stories to submit to publishers. And once again, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, I find myself sympathetic to the people who want to avoid the actual pain of writing. I mean, I spent two and a half years trying to finish Curveball Issue 36 so that I can move on and finish the entire story (Issues of Year Four coming soon) and when I look back on that process, I don’t feel particularly satisfied. I just feel two and a half years older, and imbued with a burning desire to start a fistfight with anyone who tries to tell me that “writer’s block isn’t real.”

Also, as a self-professed Self-Publishing Supervillain, the Supervillain part of me says I should automatically be in favor of rogue AI as long as I can use it to my own ends.

THAT SAID, the actual writing process is important. Writers have ideas, yes, but they also make specific decisions about how that idea is implemented. And while I can actually visualize a process where writer feeds story idea into AI and turns it into a good story, that process involves taking what the AI generates and editing it so heavily that it bears no resemblance to the original content. IN FACT, there are stories of editors for major publishers who did just that—they took a writers middling content and turned it into something great, essentially being more responsible for the actual story being told than the writers themselves.

When I hear stories about those editors, they are usually spoken of reverently and held up as some kind of literary heroes. I happen to disagree—I appreciate the need for story editing, but if you have to wind up completely gutting a story through editing you never should have bought the fucking manuscript to begin with.

But it occurred me, when I thought about THAT, is that these AI writing bots might just be allowing authors to become those asshole editors I dislike hearing about so much. So I decided to see for myself, and signed up for Sudowrite, one of those new-fangled AI Writing Bot things. It doesn’t claim to be something you can use to write an entire novel for you (though I suspect enterprising people could find a way to make it work) but rather a writer’s assistant, something that writer’s can use it to improve their prose or get past places where they’re stuck.

Is it? Is it any good? Does it have any useful qualities, or is it just a dreck generator? I have decided to find out, and share what I discover with the rest of you. And I’ll be doing it here, on this site, bearing whatever slings and arrows may come my way.

… and if you should be curious as to what kind of writer I am, to determine whether my general content places me above or below the standard level of AI-generated word-things, well, you’re in luck. I have a lot of fiction on this very site. Plenty of writing samples available for your critical evaluation.

OK, that’s the prologue. My next post is going to actually talk about my experience using Sudowrite, and how I think it compares to me just writing on my own.

NEXT: SUDOWRITE

Footnotes

  1. Once confronted with it they spend a lot of time pretending it’s not a big deal because hey did you know we spent a lot of time on this and having got to this point we really don’t want to go through all that again
  2. Of course, now some companies are saying that’s a feature, not a bug.

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4 comments

Mycroft W 19 May 2023 at 3:16 PM

Interesting. I look forward (sideways?) at what comes out.

I remember the “sample wars” from the 90s, and thinking that what came out was really cool, but yeah, copyright. And eventually – it took a bunch of lawsuits, but eventually – the field settled out in a way that the copyright owners got paid *something*, but the remixers/samplers/creative artists also got *something*.

But there’s issues this time.
On the one hand, the copyright owners (even though they were saying it was for “the little guy”, that is, the “starving artist”) were the RIAA companies, or ASCAP. Writing and art haven’t gone down the “we own it all forever” route anywhere near as badly as music, which is a good thing, but that also means that the landsharks (and politicians) that can be afforded by this year’s copyright owners aren’t RIAA calibre.
On the other hand, this generation of remixers have learned from the 90s, and (I’m sure totally coincidentally) made it much harder to work out what the “samples” are they’re using and who is the copyright owner. I’m guessing the fights are going to be more “can’t copy ‘4-chord punk'” or “it’s not copying, it’s an homage” than the Sample Wars. (Not that I don’t look forward to a “Count Vormuir” resolution when it becomes possible to work it all out. Not likely, but one can dream?)

But on the “writer’s block” note. Not that I would ever get on anyone’s case around that (/me looks at that lecture he said he’d give three months ago…), but there was a “simple” solution to issue 36: “Blank it, this is its own story. Set it up quickly as “End of Year 3”, and have it *be* “Curveball: Year Four”. Who cares if it’s only 7 hours of “real time”?

I’m glad you’ve had time to live life and to pick up other projects that were stalled by The Monster That Ate New York. But I’m ecstatic that you’ve been able to exorcise those demons enough to look at the CB universe again! Stranded on a precipice, I is!

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C. B. Wright 19 May 2023 at 4:22 PM

I thought of that solution but Year Four is the actual end of the story, and 36 was the actual end of the Year 3 arc. Thematically it couldn’t end on 35, 35 was feeding directly into 36.

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Drew 19 May 2023 at 4:56 PM

While I think I’m a fairly good writer, I believe it’s because I’m an above-average editor. And I’m able to edit my own shitty first drafts as though they were written by someone else. I don’t really care who came up with the idea first, I can see what’s wrong and how to improve it. And I’ll try damn hard to keep the original author’s voice while doing it.

That means chatbots could be a really good source for me. Give it a rough outline, take what it spits out, and go from there.

But for images, I haven’t seen anyone taking Midjourney output as the start of the process. They tweak the prompt until they get something they like, which IMO makes you a form of art director. You’re working with your “artist” and giving feedback until they give you back something acceptable. Just that the artist is infinitely patient, is familiar with every reference and style you can name, and – most importantly – is fast as fuck.

Straight news writing, I think we’re within a year or two of completely gutting the entry-level career path, which won’t start affecting us for another 5-10 years. Commercial illustration is probably next. Creative writing I suspect still requires more human intervention, but maybe I’m just telling myself that because it’s a thing I do, and I want to believe I’m not so easy to replace.

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C. B. Wright 19 May 2023 at 5:02 PM

Hmmm. I don’t think Sudowrite is quite there yet, but I think it might be heading in that direction. I do touch on that a little in my writeup.

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