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Why I believe AI could never take over a real writer’s world 

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Janet van Eeden is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, producer and lecturer, and Dean of AFDA Durban. She is the current Overall Chairperson for the Simon Mabhunu Sabela Awards. She has a PhD in English.

Are writers doomed in a world of ChatGPT, OpenAI and more? This writer definitely does not think so.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a few book launches this past month for a scriptwriting handbook finally published 11 years after it was first written. At one of the launches, a colleague asked me a few questions, the most pertinent one being whether the future of writers was doomed due to the success of ChatGPT, OpenAI and other artificial intelligence writing programmes. 

As ChatGPT has dominated the internet since it landed in December last year, I thought about the question. As I answered, I realised that a writing bot would never be able to replace what is essential to me about the actual process of writing. 

Writing is not just about creating content, in my view. For true writers, as I like to think I am, the process of writing “(is) the very thing itself”, as King Lear said to Poor Tom in the wilderness. The action of writing involves transmuting thoughts onto a page or a screen, from the brain to the hand, into the medium in which it will finally end up. That process, for the writer, is the most important thing. 

Personally, if I don’t write in my diary for a few days, I feel very “omgekrap” as the Afrikaners would say. I remember being a bit rude to my family-in-law on the day I was about to get married in the UK — long story — when they wanted me to join in the family pre-wedding prep. I begged them to leave me alone for a while as I hadn’t even written in my diary that I was getting married and it was imperative that I do before I took such an enormous step. 

Writing is a form of therapy for me and for many other writers. I need to set things down, often with paper and pen in my diary for example, and at other times, on a computer screen, to put life into perspective. The very process helps me make sense of what it is I’m going through in an intense and busy life. It helps me gain perspective on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which often assault human beings. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The future of jobs in the age of AI, sustainability and deglobalisation

I used to write regular opinion columns for a number of newspapers as a freelance journalist before working in education full-time. In those days I made sense of some of the worst moments of my week dealing with bureaucrats, getting children to school on time, PTOs and many other trials which are part of trying to live a so-called normal life. 

When I wrote a column which would turn a distressing moment in a fraught week into an amusing anecdote for readers to smile at, the annoyance and irritation of the moment felt worth it. Writing allowed me to make sense of life’s tapestry which often unravelled. Even when writing plays, screenplays or other creative work, the action of writing has always been a search for answers to the sometimes confounding questions life has asked. Each one of my creative pieces allowed me to excoriate my lived experience, added to any research I may have done on the subject matter, in order to create a piece of writing which would hopefully entertain others, with a bit of luck.

So AI, with all its bells and whistles, doesn’t hold any threat for me. It’s a great research tool, yes, but to capture the real meat of human experience a machine would have to get into the harsh realities of real life, not simply regurgitate others’ experiences of it. For now, I don’t see any artificial intelligences queuing up to take on that challenge. At least, I hope not! DM  

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  • ilike homophones says:

    At last, a common sense down to earth article about AI

    What Janet says are 100% true and correct.

    Lack of comments in this article are telling … .. …

    All that a AI-software-program knows is what we all say, believe and write on the internet,

    manipulated by a very clever and advanced software program written by humans.

    The not so educated people in a certain field,
    will get the most benefit from AI,
    while the experts in their field,
    will get nothing or very little from AI,

    because AI just throws back at them what they already said!

    AI can cleverly present a lot of facts already said in a orderly manner,
    but it cannot produce original ideas.

  • Colin McGee says:

    And yet Amazon is littered with books “written” by ChatGPT and other AI programmes. The New York Mycological Society recently issued a warning to members that using a particular Mushroom Identification Guide (written by AI) was to be avoided. There were instances of readers misidentifying fungi as a result of this book. Some were left very ill indeed.
    So whether we like it or not, book buyers may end up purchasing books that weren’t written by a human. School teachers have to be able to spot AI generated essays. And programmes meant to spot AI-written material are sloppy at best.
    Sigh.

  • jason du toit says:

    “never” is a very, very strong word.

    writing might be a pesonal journey, but it is the reader who consumes it. the primary purpose of writing is to communicate with the reader.

    writing as a hobby will likely not be supplanted by AI; that form of writing is an activity for personal enjoyment. the article puts so much emphasis on this, but skims over the reading aspect, with a token final paragraph trying to sum up a point that wasn’t really made.

    it is inevitable – sooner rather than later – that AI will take over the role of most writing. movie scripts will be better tailored to audiences, novels will speak more succinctly to individuals, articles will be more in-depth and directed at an individual reader’s needs.

    AI will be creating original material. and material tailored to a specific individual. imagine a movie adapting to your reactions; learning what makes you laugh as you watch, and then adjusting what follows to be better suited to your sense of humour. or a book that understands you as a person and chooses a point of view in the writing that will best challenge your perceptions or provoke introspection.

    society has been through this many times. the production line. the automobile. the excavator. each time bringing a sea change to skills and employment – normally manual labour of some sort.

    this time around it is writers, lawyers, teachers, developers who will need to adjust and change.

    AI is not going away and will only become more and more capable over time.

    • ilike homophones says:

      AI cannot and will never create original material.

      It might appear so to uninformed people,
      but that is because they are not the original author who created
      a new idea before it was grabbed by AI

      Original ideas are sourced from the author’s mind and soul,
      which AI do not have,
      and never will have.

      And if you do not believe that all living beings have a
      soul and a mind body,
      then I suggest that you do some soul-searching … … …

      • Janet Harrison says:

        Never is a long time, I agree. But I believe that you are dismissing writers like me who aren’t writing “as a hobby”. Professional writers access that same deep motivation, inspiration or dare I say “soul” to write their work. AI can’t replicate “soul”, I believe.

  • John Cartwright says:

    The primary purpose of a creative writer is to write. Communication with a reader is a bonus. An engineering manual, for instance, is a different matter.

  • Coen Gous says:

    For me it would be interesting what the writer thinks about photography. From what I have seen, photos can be edited at will using AI. Ugly subjects, including humans, can be made beautiful, fat people skinny, etc.

  • Sonya Barrois says:

    It’s worth noting too that according to experts and current studies, GenAI writes rubbish (‘halucinates’ is the technical term they use) more than half of the time. Meaning that even to search for info, it’s useless and a waste of time. (Imagine having to double or even triple check every single sentence it churns out.)

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