I fear that I will soon be replaced by a computer.
One upon a time, I believed many jobs were endangered by robots and artificial intelligence (AI), but those that involved creative enterprises – literature, art, drama, music – would be immune. Of course, as AI has advanced and free (or nearly free) novels have proliferated, I slowly have been losing faith in the future of a career as a novelist.
But last weekend, the last vestiges of my confidence in the viability of human artistry as a holdout in the information age collapsed. It was smashed to bits at the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena. This was my first writers’ conference in several years, and a decidedly different message came through than I heard a decade ago: “This isn’t art, folks; it’s science.”
And, as we all know, computers and robots are really good at science.
Of the many well-delivered presentations I attended, more than half of them described the path to a best-selling, high-concept, Nobel-prize-winning novel as a matter of following a formula. I’m not talking about the “three-act” structure the professors used to lecture about in creative writing courses I took in college. We’re talking about a step-by-step, paint-by-the numbers approach to constructing stories. With a (brief) nod to the less calculable ounce of inspiration that initiates many projects, the speakers I heard broke successful (that is, eventually made into movies) plots into repeatable and predictable sequences of “beats” — a term apparently borrowed from Hollywood (as I’m afraid much of the plot structures have been).
As I listened to the presentations—often they were illustrated with movie clips, not passages from novels—I began to feel that it isn’t much of a leap from this kind of prescription to the creation of algorithms that can do the writing job for us. Computers have access to Google. (Duh.) Any information about a geographic setting, a time period, a particular science-fiction theory, any theory of human emotion — it’s all available to a computer, which doesn’t even have to use fingers to type in a search query. Put all that data together with the “eight steps to creating a breakout novel,” and you’ve got a very efficient, incredibly cheap novelist on your hands. (Not that human novelists aren’t cheap. Inexpensive, I mean.)
Now I wake up to the lead story in the New York Times’ Arts section this morning: “Number-Crunching the Novel.”
Among the discoveries by the computer-wielding analysts of literature that the NYT profiles is this gem: “…what distinguishes the Gothic novel isn’t just castles and ghosts but more frequent use of certain verb tenses and prepositions.” If I am armed with this and similar data, plug it into a computer, do I really have to write another word, or will the computer be able to do it for me?
Recently, a friend dropped off a copy of The Hightower Lowdown, a newsletter written by Texan Jim Hightower (a politician I travelled with back in the 1980s and 1990s when I wrote an article about him for the Wall Street Journal). Although my friend didn’t know that Hightower was an old acquaintance, she does know that one of the issues I write about in my books is the disappearance of jobs.
Hightower’s main concern in his latest newsletter, “’Thinking’ robots will soon shake our definition of human worth,” is robots who will replace human physical labor. He points out that MIT and Boston University economists counted some 670,000 industrial jobs that were replaced by robots from 1990 to 2007, and predicts the number of roboticized jobs will quadruple in another eight years.
But, it’s not just physical labor that’s going away. Doctors make fewer diagnoses; computers make more. Your bank never lets you talk to a human on the phone. Hightower relates the story of a computer named VITAL that won a seat on the board of a Hong Kong financial corporation. Computers are writing earnings reports for some of the world’s major news organizations. And now, will our favorite novelists (or at least the best-selling ones) have names like HAL and VITAL?
Hightower is right to conclude his newsletter with the observation that the machine isn’t the enemy. The problem isn’t the disappearance of work (who doesn’t like vacations?), but it is the reality that we have devised no other system for distributing wealth and resources. “(W)e are not battling bots, but the grabbiness of a few moneyed corporations and investors intent on claiming all of the profits of AI — everyone else and every one of America’s democratic all-in-this-together values be damned.”
I’ve heard people argue that being freed from work will allow us all the opportunity to take up creative work. Apparently, we can do that. But what if everyone prefers to read HAL and VITAL? Human-written novels will be the equivalent of trees that fall in the woods with no one around.
I have many friends in technology industries who frequently post items on Facebook about how technology really isn’t taking any jobs; it’s just creating different ones. Apparently, someone will have to program that computer to write the novels. Frankly, I don’t believe it, and I don’t see it. Once the computer is programmed, the human work is over. Even Bill Gates has said about AI: “I don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”
PS: If you want to see an example of my treatment of these kinds of issues, you can read this excerpt from my upcoming novel, Marcia’s Revenge: A Johnson Station Novel.