Protecting What’s Real in the Age of AI

Protecting What’s Real in the Age of AI

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is officially here, and it’s gaining speed and momentum with each passing hour.

Every day of late we find ourselves contemplating what the latest technological breakthroughs will bring. LLMs are democratizing content creation. AI agents are performing actions on our behalf. Image generators are re-prompting themselves in order to deliver near-photo-realistic likenesses.

And while those advancements are indeed exciting and newsworthy, there’s also another perspective to consider, another topic that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention, but feels increasingly more important.

What I’m alluding to here is the battle between what’s real and what’s not, which is a battle being fought in the arena of artificial intelligence.

And what’s at stake right now, the losses we may indeed suffer in this battle, are those artistic souls, those creatives, like me, who find immense value—and a sense of purpose—in the act of creating with words, in writing itself.

What we’d all do well to remember is that writing is not, and has never been, about writing; or, rather, it’s never really been about the words themselves.

For to write is to think, to turn a thought around and around until it takes shape and becomes something greater, and more formed, and more substantive than when it began.

It’s an alchemy that works in a manner that we can’t fully understand, a parlor trick of consciousness that takes our lived experience and transmutes it into something that becomes part of the lived experience of someone else.

It’s a power so great, and so essential to being human, to being conscious, that to lose it, or to completely outsource it to a machine, would be to lose a part of our inborn nature, our fundamental humanness.

The danger in LLMs as I see it is that they exploit a flaw in human behavior, which is the desire we all possess to take the shortcut, the easier path, the fastest way to the payoff.

These large language models are so incredibly powerful and possess more knowledge than we could ever hope to acquire and the temptation—a temptation that rivals all the other great temptations, like money and sex and power—is near irresistible.

Why have a new thought about something when a technology can have it for you? You can claim it and no one will know. You’ll even reap the reward—the accolade, the reprint, the interview. You can be a writer and a thinker, a public intellectual, without ever having to write or think or intellectualize.

Not long ago, I trained an LLM to write in my voice and fed it the points I wanted to make, and what it produced was a piece of writing that sounded so much like me that it was indiscernible from something I would have written unassisted.

For a moment I stared at the prose and wondered if perhaps I had authored it.

I had not.

But the only way you could know for certain is if you were to burrow into the words themselves, into the thoughts that formed them, and find their code of origin.

Only then would you see that they didn’t have my neurological signature, my cerebral watermark.

Yes, I was responsible for the inputs, for whirring the machine to life, but the process that occurred between input and output, in other words, the thinking, was done by something else, something decidedly not me.

This is an interesting and perplexing problem to ponder and it requires the ability to hold two thoughts in one’s mind at once: that LLMs are incredibly useful tools that can be deployed during the act of writing, and that the act of writing, or thinking, must not be lost, lest we surrender our essential nature.

Which is not to say that I’m not excited about the future and what AI will do for us as a species, because I very much am, but I’m also deeply concerned about the fate of human creativity. I’m struggling to process the fact that we’re now outsourcing both our ideas, and how we bring those ideas to life.

When I think about human creativity, about how it works, about what it takes to animate an idea, I think author Michael Chabon’s description of the novel-writing process sums it up quite nicely: “All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.”

What he means is that each creative act builds upon one that came before it. Take one of 2022’s most memorable novels as an example.

Part of the beauty in reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Demon Copperhead is that it’s work that was inspired by the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield, written nearly 175 years ago.

It’s a modern retelling of Copperfield that functions as a sort of conversation with Dickens, across more than a century and a half, and connects us to a time and place that we’ll never see or know or experience. Demon Copperhead is a beautiful work of art and imagination that simply wouldn’t have been possible without Dickens’s original story.

But I simply can’t envisage a scenario where I’d want to read a novel created with an LLM that was fed the work of an author who lived and wrote in a different time and asked it to retell the story through a new lens, even if the LLM “author” gave it some direction.

Knowing that the worlds that Dickens and Kingsolver created came directly from their lives, from their experiences, from all the places they’d walked and the people they’d met and the agonies they’d suffered and the triumphs they’d celebrated, knowing that, knowing that with certainty, is what gives the work its soul.

It seems to me that now is the time we must act—swiftly, decisively— to protect what’s real, by which I mean our artistic selves, because we’ll never get this moment again.

The integrity of one’s name has never been more at risk, and the need to enact protective measures has never been more urgent.

This is a wakeup call for all of us with a vested interest in protecting what’s real. For there is nothing less than our creativity at stake.

What’s real matters more than ever.

Do what you can to protect it.

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