I am not a machine. (Some thoughts on AI and creativity.)

Last Saturday, over our usual morning coffee, my husband told me about an entrepreneur he’d been listening to on YouTube who was talking about the AI revolution-to-come. According to this entrepreneur, AI was going to be as disruptive to the internet/commerce as the printing press had been to society all those centuries ago. This entrepreneur spoke of how easy AI now made it to set up a business, create a website, generate copy to fill its pages, and to start trading. And because of AI’s ability to produce text within seconds all this could be done at the click of the button. At this point of the story, I burst into tears.  

Why the highly emotional reaction?

Well, I’ve been having a good think about that.

I reflected on all the subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages I’d absorbed over the past year or so: the YouTube ads telling me that I could design and produce a book within a matter of minutes; a new tab appearing on my search engine labelled ‘AI chat’; the Yoast SEO plugin within my WordPress website offering me the option of getting AI to write my titles and blog post descriptions; the questions I’ve been asked by members of the genre community about whether AI submissions are a problem to me as an editor of anthologies (such as in my interview on the very lovely Tiny Bookcase Podcast); the boxes I’ve been ticking on my submissions of short stories, verifying that I did not use AI in my writing; most recently, the backlash to Angry Robot Books using AI to deal with their open submissions (they have since switched back to the old email submissions process). The list goes on…

Basically, I am being assaulted by information about AI. It is worming its way into my life; niggling at my thoughts. The entrepreneurs tell me that, just like the principle behind the 4-hour work week, it will make me rich. It will make my life less stressful.

Actually, what it’s doing is making my life more stressful.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love writing and editing. And when, in my mid-forties, I finally came to the conclusion that all I wanted to do with the rest of my life was write, I experienced a feeling of “rightness” about my career that I’d never known before. A peacefulness settled over me, and I accepted this knowledge as the gift that it is. But the life of a writer who works across genres and forms, whose writing isn’t easily definable (or marketable), and who has a passion for quirky, non-commercial writing and editing projects, isn’t exactly stress-free. I worry about my income (or, rather, lack of income) a lot. So I try to do all that I can to write as much as my day allows, and to send as much stuff “out there” – short stories, novels and novellas – in the hope that one or two of them might find a good publishing home. Bring in some money.

My kids, who are all too aware of the situation, sometimes comment that they feel for me. “You’re always working so hard, Mum. But you never earn any money!”

Yep. That’s me.  

Just to clarify – I am not sharing this to elicit sympathy or advice. Put simply, this state of affairs is what it is. Every writer in the business knows that you finish one project then get on with the next. You accept your rejections (or put up with the silences from publishers) and keep going. Write more. Submit more. Mostly, I’m okay with this process. But the whole chat about AI – about how it would be such a game changer, as though the fastest sprinter in the world was suddenly competing against someone on a motorbike (and this was within the rules) – knocked me for six. Because, suddenly, my career choice seemed incredibly foolish.

I realized how much I’d been pushing myself to get words down on the page. To forgoing time with my family, sleep, cooking meals from scratch, doing my hobbies etc. in the goal of churning out more words. To getting more stuff out there because, as yet, not a single of my writing projects was earning me anything substantial. Unconsciously, I’d been berating myself for not writing enough words. To not being as fast as AI when it came to generating content. I’d been down on myself for not being a machine. Yet, I had to remind myself: I am not a machine. And I should never compare myself with one.

Realizing this was a huge relief.

Hey world – I’m not an artificial intelligence! I’m a physical intelligence! I need to look after the body that encases my mind which is the word-generator. And this takes time. I am also a highly emotional intelligence. I need to nurture the relationships with loved ones that give my life meaning – that give my stories depth of emotion and authenticity. I need to experience life so that I can write about it from a place of compassion. In short, I am human. And the human imagination and capacity to create runs on a completely different model (and timeframe) to AI.

Busy writing. (Because I do a lot of my plotting while walking.)

Writing this has been cathartic. To admit that I’m tired; that I’ve been pushing myself too hard – and that, ridiculously, I’ve been comparing my writing output with a machine, and finding myself lacking – has been useful. It is time to be more gentle on myself. To remind myself of how much joy there is in writing when it’s not done in competition with an artificial creator who can go infinitely faster.

Perhaps I have embarked on a career that will one day be moribund. But I still hope that, ultimately, some humans will want to read books written by humans. For the time being, this will have to be enough.

8 thoughts on “I am not a machine. (Some thoughts on AI and creativity.)”

  1. The AI pushers will not understand how much we need humans to do the writing. They think as long as words kind of make sense, writing is doing its job. That’s not going to be enough.

    I felt angry tonight. Twenty years behind the curve, I discovered a song on Spotify called Cherry Blossom Girl by Air and saw there was a video for it underneath which had a disturbing narrative storyline to it. I wanted to find the backstory to the choice of artistic direction for the video, so I did a search and I found one website, clearly written by AI.

    “Is there a music video for Cherry Blossom Girl?
    Yes, Air released a visually stunning music video for Cherry Blossom Girl, directed by Mike Mills. The video perfectly complements the dreamlike essence of the song, featuring beautiful visuals and symbolic references.”

    First of all, the director was Kris Kramski, so the site is just wrong. Plus, there is nothing about the fact that it can’t be shown on YouTube because it’s too graphic, or how it potentially subverts the meaning of the song from unrequited passion to something more sinister, or about the male gaze, or violence against women etc. etc. Is it dreamlike, or horrifically nightmarish? I’d say the latter.

    I probably will have to write about it myself*, because there really is nothing out there, but it’s just so annoying that someone has thought, I know people might google this, I’ll put something random on a site to draw clicks and it will just be robot-written unverified crap.

    *NB, I will probably not… I have filled my time with other bookish things, so it wouldn’t be a priority. The robots may have to win, this time.

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      ‘AI pushers’ is completely the right term. And yes, you’re right. They think that writing making some sort of sense is enough. Writing is so much more than about it making some sort of sense.

      And I understand your anger. What’s disheartening is the amount of misinformation out there, and the fact that it takes time for thoughtful, intelligent people (who see through the badly written content and understand the many repercussions of a disturbing video like that being out in the world, with no kind of filter) to counter it with the correct information and a powerful, reflective commentary. Sadly, thoughtful, perceptive like yourself are in short demand these days and generally too busy with their own creative projects to spend time putting out fires like this.

      So, yeah, I hear you.

  2. Cathy Thomas-Bryant

    I love the fact that you’ve examined the emotional impact here. Most commentators haven’t.
    I felt awful when a get-rich-quick scheme was marketed to me: think of a cool book title, get AI to write it, publish and sell it on Amazon, and watch the money roll in. How horrible is that? The poor people who buy the book, only to find that it’s drivel! Apparently it doesn’t work, which is good.

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      Thank you for your kind comment, Cathy – you’re right, I don’t think people often think of the emotional impact. I guess we’re supposed to be machines and devoid of emotion…!

      I’m glad to hear that that horrible get-rich-quick scheme doesn’t work. What I get worried about are those instances I’ve heard about when people fill a book with AI-written content in the style of a certain author, slap a real author’s name on it and sell it on Amazon. Fans of that author then may buy the book unwittingly, and the seller gets some money. The real author has to spend their own time proving to Amazon that the book is a fake. I know that there are campaigns out there to stop this kind of stuff happening, but I can’t help think that authors without the clout of the big players may be targetted by this. (But, I’m going to keep trying to be optimistic about the situation!)

  3. We will always need human writers, and I think we will always have processes in place to distinguish between the two. Having a communication network between readers and authors is always a good thing. For instance, I trust that the content you are putting out is not AI, and many other writers too, because you make it known and get involved with your audience. In this sense I feel we will always be able to tell the difference – or at least in our lifetimes.

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      I do hope you are right, Alan! I also think you make a really good point about the importance of real life networks in building trust between an author and a reader (and a publisher). When I was reading submissions for the We-inspired anthology I was definitely worried about getting an influx of AI-generated stories. Thankfully, I didn’t, but I definitely found it reassuring that many of the writers I knew from conventions, or from social media, so knew that they were actual, real people! I guess the only trouble with this is that a brand new, unknown, writer could come up with a brilliant short story but if they’re not known in the genre there might be suspicion around their story. I’m just going to assume, though, that the chances of this happening are pretty slim! Anyway, yes to networking and building connections between authors and readers. It all helps us to become more open and empathetic. 🙂

  4. There’s some very interesting writing in Nature at the moment about the risks of AI, well worth reading. But yes, you are not AI, we are not machines, you and I are alive, and our intelligence is embodied in our physical form.
    The more time goes by the more I feel optional activities (and writing is optional, a gift, a privilege, a joy) should be as far as possible fun. Creation is a delightful thing, and each effort is unique.
    I’m not too worries about AI messing with my writing success (hahaha) I’m already out-produced by ten thousand other writers, and there’s strong and effective kickback against AI in writing & publishing now.
    I do wonder why, seeing as publishers now ask us to confirm no AI is involved in our work, why they do not promise the same. I hope this will come soon.

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      Thank you for your lovely comment, David. I LOVE being reminded that “creation is a delightful thing, and each effort is unique.” That kind of wisdom is priceless. Thank you. 😊

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