At some point each week, when I have a moment between meeting regular publishing deadlines that earn my living, I tell myself that I should really work on another book.
And then I put that thought aside because truth be told, the time/effort/reward equation just doesn’t work in favor of making a book. It never really did for most writers. Book publishing is hard.
But what if I could outsource the writing of the book to an algorithm, and my book could be written in minutes, rather than months or even years?
That’s the promise of the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3, a language-centric artificial intelligence application that has reached a level where, if prompted, it can use its access to existing information and self-training in English syntax and grammar (by being exposed to existing writing examples) to produce paragraphs or even pages that seem indistinguishable to a competent human writer.
A recent article on the development and potential of GPT-3 by Steven Johnson, published in The New York Times Magazine, states that GPT-3 can produce “original prose with breathtaking fluidity – a development that could have profound implications for the future.”
Indeed, the advancement 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 needed to produce much of the text we currently consume.
GPT-3 works by having the algorithm predict the next word in order, essentially asking itself over and over, given which word was just put on the page, which word makes sense next. When given a prompt, this results in passages that have the appearance of chained sentences in service of expressing a larger idea.
It got me thinking. Doing a little math on the back of the envelope, I write 600 words per week for this column, 52 weeks per year, times 10 (or more) years. That’s over 300,000 words I write about books and reading in this place alone. Add the rest of my shaggy dog artwork, and you’re looking at maybe a couple million words posted straight from that noggin, probably more than enough for GPT-3 to capture my style.
Offer a few prompts, such as “What is Amazon’s role in today’s publishing ecosystem?” and “What’s good about independent bookstores?” and unleash the GPT-3 armed with my style, able to access its bottomless pit of additional content and wam, bam, thank you silicon-based digital intelligence, I have a book!
Or do I? I’m not so sure. While The Times describes GPT-3 as creating “original prose,” that’s not entirely true. What he creates is more like “sentences that haven’t been organized exactly this way before”. It is not the same as “original prose”.
Writing is both the articulation and the alteration of an idea. Writing is thinking. Every week when I sit down to write this column, I have a notion, 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 fluidity, cannot actually think. While putting one word after the next is usually 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 that kind of algorithm.
If I want to write another book, I’ll have to do it myself, damn it.
Or rather, yay!
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities”.
Biblioracle book recommendations
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you 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 set aside” by Stephen Mack Jones
— Jill B., Glenview
It’s been over 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 Semple.
1. “The Stolen Hours” by Allen Eskens
2. “The Great Chicago 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 seems to be drawn to suspense and for non-fiction is happy to have a wildcard as long as it has a compelling story underneath. I go to fiction, specifically “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman.
1. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles
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 subject matter, but keep his touch light enough that you don’t feel lectured or like you’re being manipulated. Mary seems to know what’s going on in the world today, so “Mrs. Fletcher,” which explores issues of race, sexuality, and identity, seems like a good fit.
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