At some point every week, when I get a moment in between meeting the regular publishing deadlines that allow me to make a living, I tell myself that I really should be working on another book.
And then I put aside that thought because truth be told, the time/effort/compensation equation just doesn’t work out in favor of doing a book. It really never has for most writers. Book publishing is tough.
But what if I could outsource the writing of the book to an algorithm, and my book could be drafted within a matter of minutes, rather than months or even years?
This is the promise of the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3, an artificial intelligence application focused on language that has reached a level where, if given a prompt, it can use its access to existing information and self-training on English syntax and grammar ( by being exposed to existing examples of writing) to produce paragraphs or even pages that seem indistinguishable from a competent human writer.
A recent write-up of the development and potential of GPT-3 by Steven Johnson, published in The New York Times Magazine, declares that GPT-3 can produce “original prose with mind-boggling fluency — a development that could have profound implications for the future.”
Indeed, the advance of GPT-3 opens up a number of questions about what we mean if something is “original,” the role and importance of “creativity,” and whether or not humans are even necessary to produce much of the text that we currently consume.
GPT-3 works by having the algorithm predict the next word in sequence, essentially asking itself over and over, given what word was just put on the page, what word makes sense next. When given a prompt, this results in passages that have the appearance of sentences strung together in the service of expressing a larger idea.
This got me thinking. Doing a little back-of-the-envelope math, I write 600 words per week for this column, 52 weeks a year, times 10 (or so) years. That’s over 300,000 words of me writing about books and reading, just in this spot alone. Add in the rest of my shaggy dog oeuvre, and you’re looking at maybe a couple million published words straight from this noggin, probably more than enough for GPT-3 to capture my style.
Come up with a few prompts, such as, “What is the role of Amazon in the current publishing ecosystem?” and “What’s great about independent bookstores?” and set the GPT-3 loose armed with my style, able to access its bottomless well of additional content and wham, bam, thank you silicone-based digital intelligence, I’ve got a book!
Or do I? I’m not so sure. While the Times frames GPT-3 as creating “original prose,” this is not quite true. What it creates are more like “sentences that have not been organized exactly this way before.” This is not the same thing as “original prose.”
Writing is both the articulation and the alteration of an idea. Writing is thinking. Each week when I sit down to write this column I have a notion, a topic or idea, but through the writing itself, the nature of the idea changes. I learn something for myself in the process.
GPT-3, for all its fluency, cannot actually think. While putting one word after the next is generally the work of writers reduced to its essence, the reality is that the kind of thinking we do when we write will always be beyond this kind of algorithm.
If I want to write another book, I’ll have to do it myself, darn it.
Or rather, yay!
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “Never Simple” by Liz Scheier
2. “Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals” by Laurie Zaleski
3. “Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout
4. “A Dream Life” by Claire Messud
5. “Lives Laid Away” by Stephen Mack Jones
— Jill B., Glenview
It’s been more than a minute since I recommended one of my favorite novels for combining genuine laughs with great pathos, and I think it’s a good bet for Jill, “Where’d you Go, Bernadette?” by Maria Seple.
1. “The Stolen Hours” by Allen Eskens
2. “Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City” by Carl Smith
3. “Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman
4. “The Dragons, The Giant, The Women” by Wayétu Moore
5. “The Last Flight” by Julie Clark
— Tom B., Oak Park
This is for a book club that for fiction looks like it’s drawn toward suspense and for nonfiction is happy to have a wild card as long as it has a fascinating story underneath. I’m going fiction, specifically “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman.
1. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towers
2. “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig
3. “Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman
4. “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” by Patrick Radden Keefe
5. “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” by Nikole Hannah-Jones
— Mary P., Chicago
Tom Perrotta is one of those writers who can ground his novels in contemporary topics, but keep his touch light enough that you don’t feel lectured to, or like you’re being manipulated. Mary looks like she’s keyed in to what’s happening in the world today, so Perrotta’s “Mrs. Fletcher,” which explores issues of race, sexuality and identity, feels like a nice fit.
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