Eventually, AI Agents Will Put Even Authors Out of Work

| Columns & Opinions

Computers play better chess than humans. They can be instructed on how to do detailed manufacturing, beyond the abilities of humans. They shrewdly buy and sell stock. They can read medical literature and aid in the treatment of disease. It won’t be long before even the last bastion of the human mind, creative writing, will be replaced by AI agents.

AI Agent

One of my personal observations that’s probably not unique to me is the following. “If your job can be done by a robot, it will be.” That’s because, of course, computers are far less expensive to operate and maintain than human beings.

That replacement process gets slowed down in many areas because of human nature. That is, while we wouldn’t mind being served a burger by a descendent of Pepper, a robot doctor performing an intimate physical examination is quite another matter. Human factors in society will naturally, selectively decide which jobs an Artificial Intelligence (AI) agent, perhaps in robot or android form, can assume in the workplace.

One of the jobs that has always been considered one of the last to fall to AI agents is the art of creative writing. That’s because the human mind has unique abilities when it comes to relating to other human beings. And yet. One can imagine a sufficiently advanced AI agent on a massive supercomputer being able to pass the Turing Test and able to generate both fiction and non-fiction that’s, in fact, pleasing to read.

One precursor to all this is IBM’s Watson. Watson is an AI agent that has been put to use reading, cataloging and organizing information about oncology by reading medical journals. From IBM:

By combining attributes from the patient’s file with clinical expertise, external research, and data, Watson for Oncology identifies potential treatment plans for a patient… Watson for Oncology draws from an impressive corpus of information, including MSK curated literature and rationales, as well as over 290 medical journals, over 200 textbooks, and 12 million pages of text.

Other research efforts have led to computers that have written experimental novels. One is called “True Love.” Here’s a story from 2014. “Computers Are Writing Novels: Read A Few Samples Here.

This week, I learned of a homegrown effort by the Washington Post to automatically produce news stories about the Rio Olympics.The Post’s Jeremy Gilbert who leads the project said, “We’re not trying to replace reporters. We’re trying to free them up.” (For now!) You can read more about the project here in my pick of the week: “The Washington Post will use robots to write stories about the Rio Olympics.

This emerging initiative is a natural thing to do. The amount of text, news and data being created by humans (and computers) is growing fast. Only computers can deal with all that information and, likely, properly analyze the total body of work.

A good example of human failure is when a particular author has an axe to grind about Apple. A myopic understanding of all that Apple does can easily lead to an article that looks to be born of expertise but is really quite self-serving. What if a descendent of Watson were to analyze all the facts about Apple over the years? What kind of analysis would it produce? How would i be received?

In any case, the simple task of writing news looks to soon be the realm of computers. The race will soon be on to see who can write better analysis, tips and editorials: humans or AI agents.

Next page: The Tech News Debris for the Week of August 1st. More on the ‘Macintosh Problem.’

21 Comments Add a comment

  1. CudaBoy

    Thankfully AI can’t write prose for sh*t as of today. A show on PBS concerning AI had a bit where actors spoke lines written by AI and it was so bad it was funny.

  2. No, alas, that isn’t how creativity works. The assumption is that creativity is restricted to previously ingested information, but no, human beings are capable of spontaneous insight. Algorithms will always literally, at least at root, be ristricted to pre-existing information, and even if a uniquely ‘AI vernacular’ emerged, we would be capable of understanding it because we provided all of the input, in one way or another. I wouldn’t worry too much about this one. 😉 This is something many engineers fail to grasp: the highest heights of technological accomplishment are always a coalescence of human ingenuity and technological efficiency. I doubt that will ever change, even if it *seems* that it has on the surface. Seriously, the AI hype machine is running in way beyond overdrive, currently.

  3. Ok, news is a bit formulaic, I can see how maybe an AI could spit out a story on the Rio 100 meter dash final, or Congress blocking Obama’s Suprime Court nominatopm, but fiction. Not the Hollywood canned, superhero-of-the-month kind, but real creative stories. I just don’t think so. I’m working on a script that combines Alzheimer’s, philosophy, a low end hustler, and redemption, in a dialogue driven Twilight Zone style. Maybe, just maybe, an AI could string the dialogue. But it could not come up with the idea. It could not make the connection that I had last week for how this will unfold. An AI can do formulaic stuff, but real creativity needs the irrational, the illogical, to work. I defy any AI ever to come up with The Wizard of Oz, or Winnie the Pooh. Alice in Wonderland or Harry Potter needed a person because the stories were NOT formulaic and NOT like something done before.

  4. Paul Goodwin

    The sad thing is AI algorithms are already in use in the pop music business replacing human songwriters. The music is so bad it fits right in. That’s what music industry execs want these days: zero risk sound-like-everything-else stuff with almost no creativity. It apparently didn’t take a whole lot of AI development to equal what those execs thought would be a good song. The truly creative stuff is still being written, but the songwriters that produce anything other than the same thing that sold already are getting lost. If they want to keep their income, they have to write what those pathetic execs are asking for. I would imagine an AI listening machine would probably enjoy it.

  5. What a depressing thought.
    But the more I think of it, the more I don’t see it happening.
    OK for news, yes it’s totally possible. The facts, in a formulaic style should be easy for an AI to do. But not creative writing. Not good fiction. As Paul said above AI written music is look alike-sound alike trash. It takes a person to write something really creative. Sure, drivel like the latest superhero-of-the-month film could be done by an AI. Hell, in the latest Bourne film Matt Damon only has 277 words. A couple of dozen lines. http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-36952919 Yes an AI could write that. It’s formulaic, and based on previous films. It’s all action and little story. Same with Suicide Squad. The biggest complaints I hear about the film is that the characters are wallpaper. They and the whole story is very superficial. Compare that to Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or Lincoln, or the Good Dinosaur. These are stories that work and are loved. They work because the stories are unlike everything else out there. They are loved because the characters have depth, back story, are real. These are things that AIs just can’t do. It’s ironic that one of the major plot lines in Star Trek The Next Generation was how Data wanted to be more human but could not. Only a human writer could have captured the nuanced subtlety of that character.

    So no I don’t see AIs replacing fiction writers. Not for quality stuff at least. One last example. Last week I had a sudden idea in the shower. Where it came from I don’t know. It’s a dialogue driven story combining a low time hustler, his parole officer, Alzheimers, and a deep philosophical question about truth. I don’t believe any AI could write this. I know that no AI could have come up with the idea.

  6. aardman

    @geoduck. About AI comedy. It could be so bad that it’s actually funny.

    Machines can probably write news reports. Not news articles but boring accounts of who, what, when, where, but not why. They can also probably write corporate financial reports. But works of fiction and non-fiction that are sophisticated enough to advance the art? I think that’s as big a pipe dream as atomic powered rocket ships. You know, the ones that spewed a trail of radioactive exhaust in their wake. This notion that creativity can be achieved by gathering more and more data and then programming a machine to be ‘creative’ is. to put it mildly, highly suspect.

    I strongly recommend for people who wish to read and write about AI and machine learning to first read a little (actually a lot) about the philosophy of mind. It would clear a lot of the muddle that’s going on in tech blog discussions about AI.

  7. RE: Mac Problem
    I’ve mentioned before that I’m more concerned about the Mac than I have been in many years. They just don’t seem to care about it any more. Even more distressing was a quote from Eddy Cue I ran across this morning:

    Apple now does public beta testing of its most significant software projects, something that Jobs never liked to do. In 2014, the company asked users to test run its Yosemite upgrade to OS X. Last year, it introduced beta testing of iOS, which is the company’s most important operating system.

    *
    iOS is Apple’s most important OS? That’s very scary. Sure they make lots of money off of iOS devices but iOS is based on macOS. macOS is what runs the system used by the writers, and film makers, and photographers, and musicians that make the stuff you consume on iOS. I’d hate to see Apple surrender the creative high ground to Windows. I work with Windows 10. I know Windows 10. It’s good, better IMO than any previous version. But for ease of use, stability, and security it’s no macOS.

    Then there’s the hardware I’ve seen and herd rumors about. The Macbook, which is admittedly better than I first thought, is still overpriced for what you get. (And just one USB-C port to share between charging, peripherals, and an external monitor is asinine.) I’ll give Apple benefit of the doubt if they use USB-C on the new MBP. However there’d better be more than one or two ports and they better support Thunderbolt-3. What’s the biggest rumor I’ve heard so far? An OLED screen for the function keys. Big bloody whoop. I’d expect that even Apple software won’t take advantage of that for at least a year and other software companies may never.
    And have you heard the one about them integrating a fingerprint reader into the power button? Once again, big bloody deal.

    What DO I want for my $2k? Speed, and space. Skylake, and a half TB drive. Something wicked fast for rendering pictures and videos. I’ve come to terms with Apple not letting you upgrade after you order but don’t pretend that the cloud is the be all end end all. I have big files I want to work with locally. I want to use the machine all day WITH an external monitor AND drive attached and not worry about running out of battery.

    I’ve been using Macs since the late 1980s and Apple laptops since the late 1990s. I’d HATE to migrate to another ecosystem after all this time. But GD-it Apple has been so busy producing the new, they forgot about their bread and butter core systems. They are old, slow, and expensive. I’ll live with expensive but three strikes would be too much. This fall will be the test.

    *http://9to5mac.com/2016/08/08/future-of-apple-tim-cook-interview/

  8. Face it, desktop Macs, as useful as they are, are a commodity that’s as common as anything these days. The need to refresh your home system isn’t that great. Nothing is taxing them like the advances of the 90s. I had my first Mac 12 years, my second one 8 years (BTW, it still works), and my third one would be 8 had it not been stolen last year, so my fourth one is 18 months old. And will last another six to seven years. Even Apple’s EOL scheme can’t stop it from actually running. We just don’t have the need anymore to build a bigger, better, faster system every two years. Even graphic designers that liked to push the bleeding edge of technology are able to do their jobs without reinvesting $10k every two to three years. As long as the OS remains stable and relatively impervious to external forces, it doesn’t suffer from the Windows 8-10 drudgery. (whole companies including my own outright refuse to migrate beyond Win7 because of the interface and the backend incompatibility with established software programs).

    So, yeah, the hardware race is virtually over.

  9. jhorvatic

    Outdated my butt. People think its outdated because you can’t put your fingerprints all over your screen with that touch crap. The Macs have trackpads that can do that so your screen doesn’t need to be full of dirty hand and fingerprints. I have a 5k iMac that will match any crappy PC out there.
    I don’t need add-ons because everything is already built in. I have an OS that doesn’t get viruses just because I use the internet. I can however run Windows and Mac OS at the same time without a hitch. Try running Mac OS on your PC, good luck with that.
    Tim Cook has said that the Mac is here to stay and will be relevant for a long time to come. The development of Mac OS Sierra is a good example of that. The hardware takes time to develop and newer processors from Intel are just starting to get out now. I think there maybe relevance to why Apple hasn’t refreshed yet. There’s still 4 months left to go so announcements are still possible.

  10. I see the following areas for a new iMac.
    – latest i7 chip: not much of a change and doesn’t need a new model. Intel is having problems cranking up their chips and I don’t see that changing
    – latest graphics chip: always good, but also doesn’t need a new model
    – fingerprint scanner: good, but really only needs a new keyboard or device
    – updated ports: needs a new model! I’d like to see the thunderbolt and USB ports replaced by six USB-C ports that support both thunderbolt and USB. The sticking point is how expensive this will be, and will it be enough for an Apple event.

    What do you folks want to see, and will that be enough for a big event?

  11. mrboba1

    re Mac Problem:
    I’m in agreement with geoduck – except for $2k, I want a full TB 😉

    @jhorvatic – no, they are outdated. Period. I have a 2008 macbook which I added RAM and a SSD and it works faster than the 2014 MBP we purchased used for our office. It has nothing to do with whether or not I can touch the screen, the facts are that these things are too old for the price.
    I want to get a mini to host our LAN, but again, it’s 2 years old and I’d have to spend a minimum of $750 for 1TB fusion drive? Why do we have spinning drives at all at this point? These are supposed to be the best of the best and I can’t even get a pure SSD in this model.
    What about this says it’s not outdated?

  12. mrboba1

    Oh – I see a different config allows for a 256 flash drive – which will be the same capacity as the phone (reportedly) or an iPad. Those 2 capacities (desktop v mobile) should never get near each other.

  13. John:

    A couple of thoughts, one about AI and the other about the iPad.

    Regarding AIs displacing human authors, Mark Twain’s often misquoted line may well have been a prescient response on behalf of human authors past, present and future when he quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. For human creative authorship, it remains so. AIs will never displace human creative authorship. There are two compelling reasons why.

    The first is simply the sheer unstoppable power of diversity. This is a woefully misunderstood and under-appreciated intrinsic feature of humanity, but it is what gives us our strength, resilience to threats both natural and manmade, and importantly, provides an infinite and inexhaustible wellspring of experience and therefore creative potential to mankind. No artifice, drawing upon a finite repertoire of skill set and example, can ever compete with that. Even if it were possible to programme an AI with the style and personality of a Doyle or a Steinbeck, a Chaucer or a Hemingway and everyone else ever published, this would still be a fixed set, and worse, a non-evolving set. Every human being is a unique and non-repeatable combination of innate predisposition and experience, from which their creativity is born. The greater the spread of literacy worldwide (and it is rapidly spreading in LMICs), the greater the pool of creative expression, and it will never end. It will continue to draw from experience and reference frames that will resonate more harmoniously with the contemporaneous generations who share those experiences, moreso than those of a preceding generation of authors. And that is even before we drop the real hammer on AI.

    The second reason is something uniquely human, and something we find nowhere else in nature, and certainly not in the artifices that we create, namely aspiration. We humans aspire to make each day better than its yesterday, and tomorrow better still. It is what drives not only our science and technological advancement, but our civilisation itself. It is what inspires us to quest for the unknown, to explore, and relevant to this discussion, to new heights of creativity in art – itself a recorded repository of both genius and inspiration in which life imitates art and that life inspires yet new art. This is not something programmable, if for no other reason than we do not know what this is, or why we have it. It is more than simply a function of capacity. However fast or adaptive our software for our AIs, or the algorithms for adaptation and learning in our machines, they show no sign of aspiring to be better than they are. This endows our art with not only the ability to connect with generations across time, but to inspire them with new possibilities for a better future. In authorship, this is true for everything from fictional story telling to writing a grant proposal in which one needs to inspire judges with hitherto unsuspected possibilities for a better future.

    When you combine aspiration with diversity, you end with an infinite and inexhaustible wellspring of creative talent and inspiration with which no team of dedicated programmers can ever compete. We shouldn’t worry about the creative arts, including literature. More mundane tasks, like recording and reporting the facts of the Olympics, can be relegated to AI.

    Regarding the iPad, as one who uses his 9.7” iPad Pro for serious work, I am inclined to agree with much of Neil Cybart’s analysis. I think the use case for the iPad may be more complex and subtler still, in that the iPad is still a relatively new entrant in a fast evolving ecosystem of devices and software built to address, as Tim Cook has averred, a very broad range of our human needs for productivity and well-being. Exactly where this fits, and how it will be used, I argue, is itself dynamic and not yet determined, and will largely depend on how that ecosystem and its user base co-evolve. What’s clear to this user is that the iPad has become an indispensable, accessible and convenient component of an array in both personal and professional use. Not us, but our kids will have the greater say regarding where it sits that array.

  14. daemon
    That’s the funny thing. I was all in with the post-PC idea. I even expected my 2012 MacBook Pro to be my last Mac. I said so publicly. The trouble is it just hasn’t happened. I would love to be able to replace The Beast with a 12 inch iPad Pro. Except I just can’t do what I want as effectively. The hardware is good. iOS and the touch interface just aren’t up to my needs. I can write on my iPad, but editing is still much faster and easier on \The Beast. I can record videos on my iPhone, but editing them in iMovie is still a lot easier on The Beast. Even simple things like the web or e-mail are close but still just a touch easier on The Beast. One of the bright spots has been drawing and graphics. Drawing is great on my iPad. I use Pixelmator, a lot. I do final layup of posters and cards and such in Graphic, and often draw directly in it. I can finish and export my work directly from there. If only other processes worked as well.

    Maybe the MBP I’m hoping to get this fall will be my last Mac. We’ll see where the iPad goes.

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