AI Writing Assistants: Blessing or Curse? #220 (P)
The surprising ethics of computer-generated text
Dear friends of Daily Philosophy,
Welcome to another weekly missive! I’m sure you have already heard about the attack on Salman Rushdie. After I heard the news, I began writing today’s article on the history and ethics of the controversy he started over thirty years ago with the publication of his Satanic Verses, and which eventually was echoed in the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo tragedy of 2015. But there just wasn’t enough time to finish that article in time for today’s publication, so I’ll send it to you next week, and today we talk about something entirely different.
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So, finally, after this long intro, we’re back to today’s article! Let’s talk about the ethics of computer-generated text, continuing a previous article on philosophy papers written by AI. If you missed the previous article, you can read it here:
The artisan and the factory
When I talk to other writers and philosophers about writing with AI (and when I look at the comments and reactions you sent me on the previous piece about Jasper), I see only rejection and, sometimes, fear. Will we be replaced by AI? Will our content and our expertise still be needed in the future, or will writers and philosophers eventually find themselves out of work, useless, a dying breed like coopers, cobblers, corn-jerkers and coachmen?
Everyone is quick to note that AI programs are not original; they are just repeating what is already out there. Their output is boring, reading it is tedious. There is no originality and no real insight in any AI generated text.
But is this true? And even if it was, does this mean that AI is useless for the generation of text?
Here is a little excerpt from something written by one of the first AI programs to generate human-readable text: Bill Chamberlain’s program Racter (1983):
An eagle flies high, it flies higher than a sea gull
But the crow wings rapidly from tree to bush to hedge
The same can be true of life and of death
Sometimes life flies high, sometimes death wings rapidly
Sometimes it is spoken
That death wings from tree to bush to hedge
Sometimes it does not
Boring? No originality?
A cordwainer, according to Wikipedia, is someone who makes new shoes out of new leather (as opposed to repairing them, which is the cobbler’s job). Obviously, there aren’t many cordwainers around today. Does this mean that our shoes are not worth wearing? Are they necessarily worse than the shoes of old? Can worthy shoes only be made by hand?
My grandfather, born in a Greek village in the early 1900s, got his first pair of shoes at the age of fourteen and was only allowed to wear them to church. Smaller children went barefoot, because shoes were just too valuable to waste on growing feet and muddy puddles.
Today, my children have new shoes every half year, and often seven or eight pairs at the same time: shoes for sports, for the beach, good shoes, school shoes, shoes for the home, rain boots, shoes for the rooftop terrace, shoes to wear while swimming in the sea. Their shoes are soft or hard, heavy or light, black or colourful, water-resistant, thick- or thin-soled: just as every use-case requires. All this came about because we replaced cordwainers by machines, creating an economic order in which shoes cost next to nothing and can be created with a wide variety of very specific properties that weren’t available to those leather shoes that cordwainers made by hand.
Is this really a bad thing? Or are shoes not comparable to writing? Is the skill of the wordsmith so much different in kind and value from the skill of a leathersmith?
Collaborative creation and workshops
If so, what about composers? In the famous scene in the movie Amadeus, Mozart dictates his Requiem on his deathbed to his rival Salieri. In reality, I read somewhere, he dictated it to a student of his, one Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Whatever the name of the person taking the dictation, one can imagine that a dying composer wouldn’t bother writing down every single note for every single instrument in a 90-piece orchestra. He likely just hummed a melody while beating the rhythm with his fist on the mattress — and left it to his assistant to work out the details, the orchestration, to write down every single 1/16th note and every chord. Does this mean that our enjoyment of the Requiem is somehow compromised? Is it less a work of genius because Mr Süssmayr actually wrote most of it? If Süssmayr was replaced by an AI system that would take and embellish Mozart’s dictation following Mozart’s own style, would this be worse than Süssmayr doing the same thing (and likely less faithful to Mozart’s own music than a statistically trained AI)? Why exactly?
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