My AI Wants To Kill Your Mama

A Fisking of Joyce Maynard

I'm breaking out the old fisking template for my response to a recent Facebook rant from Joyce Maynard (pictured).

If you don't know who Joyce Maynard is, you philistine, Wikipedia is your friend. She grew up just down the road a few miles in Durham, New Hampshire, home to the University Near Here. And she's had an interesting life that's provided some fodder for the literary gossip mills. So I tend to pay a little more attention to her than other writers of books I don't read.

The usual rules apply: Her post is reproduced in its entirety on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my remarks are on the right.

I’ve been following, with ever-greater concern, the story of how Artificial Intelligence has slithered into our culture and taken hold. This week brings particularly alarming news.

Joyce (I call her Joyce) is a writer, so note her language, especially "slithered". Communicating that AI is not only smart, it's slimy, sneaky, and snakelike. Real Genesis Chapter 3 stuff. This is the "alarming" language of panic.

If you had told me, fifty years ago, when I published my first book (the year was 1973; I was 19) that the day would come when books might be written by anybody without blood pumping through her veins, or a beating heart, I would have said you were crazy. But that day has come.

I could be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure that, unlike beating-heart humans, current AI programs do not strike out on their own, spontaneously writing complete books ex nihilo. They need to be prompted. By humans. Maybe that doesn't matter to Joyce Maynard. Call me crazy, but I think it does.

I admit: that could change. AIs could just start writing books on their own someday. I can't imagine why they would, but maybe. In any case, that day has not come.

As an experiment, I logged in at ChatGPT and commanded it thus: "Write the first five pages of a mystery novel in the style of Raymond Chandler."

At least to my easily-impressed eyes, the result was not good. "The night air hung heavy with the stench of secrets, a fog of mysteries that clung to the city like a lover's perfume.…"

Then I asked: "Write the first five pages of a mystery novel in the style of Joyce Maynard."

And the result began: "The small coastal town of Cedar Cove had always been a place where secrets whispered through the salt-kissed breeze and shadows clung to the weathered clapboard houses like old lovers…."

Um. That's harder for me to judge. Fans of Joyce Maynard might like it.

But "Cedar Cove" sounded familiar… googling… yup, that might get you and your LLM provider sued by Debbie Macomber, Andie McDowell, and the Hallmark Channel.

Also, note the commonalities: secrets. They whisper and they smell bad. And there seems to be a lot of clinging. Of things that are like other things. Where those other things are associated with lovers.

But it's still impressive. As that sexist rascal Samuel Johnson said about female preachers: it's "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

And it's a safe bet AI is only going to get better at it. Only a few years elapsed between a computer being able to play a mediocre game of chess and Deep Blue's beatdown of Garry Kasparov.

But so what?

As many of you may know, the growing sophistication of AI technology now allows for programs designed to replicate the voice, style, sentence structure and vocabulary of known published writers. This week came the news—thanks to research conducted by The Atlantic Magazine—that the books of hundreds, possibly thousands of writers have been scanned for the purpose of feeding the AI database in such a way that it is now possible to replicate a novel by Stephen King, or Michael Chabon, or Louise Erdrich…without any of those writers’ involvement in any way.

Or a novel by Joyce Maynard.

Ah, well. Now we're getting to the real issue: Her ox is being gored!

She's talking about Books3, which made a stir last month. You can read about it at the Atlantic here, here, and (perhaps especially) here. Also see WIRED's take: The Battle Over Books3 Could Change AI Forever.

A search revealed yesterday that seven of my books have been scanned—illegally, without procuring rights—into an AI database for the purpose of creating AI simulations of my voice.

The Authors’ Guild, of which I am a member, is pursuing legal action, as is a consortium of writers.

Books3 contains more than 170,000 books, according to one of those Atlantic articles linked above, so they aren't singling Joyce out, as she implies. But (true enough) lots of her fellow oxen are feeling gored, and they have lawyers.

However, Joyce is simply wrong to imply that this is a settled legal question. See especially that WIRED link above that provides plenty of room for doubt about that. Also of interest is TechDirt editor Mike Masnick's observation: Publishing A Book Means No Longer Having Control Over How Others Feel About It, Or How They’re Inspired By It. And That Includes AI. He finds that many of the authors griping so loudly about this are "very much confused about how copyright law works."

Joyce, does that shoe fit?

Meanwhile, you can google “AI assistance for writers” and find dozens of platforms promising to make it possible for aspiring writers to create books , without the need of all those pesky skills like grammar, sensitivity to style, rhythm, language, tone or an understanding of dialogue. The technology can take care of all that. Leaving patrons of the AI assistance sites free to concern themselves with nothing more than typing in their ideas and no doubt offering up a charge card number.

Joyce, perhaps wisely, veers off the legal issues involved, and goes into … what? The moral issues? Anyhow, she seems upset by people using technology to improve their writing. She's justly proud of her acquired skills in "grammar, sensitivity to style, rhythm, language, tone or an understanding of dialogue".

(She's overly modest, not even mentioning her impeccable spelling and large vocabulary.)

Her attitude seems to be: How dare some semi-literate upstart chick toiling in a dimly-lit basement in her parents' home in Moose Jaw use purchased technology to pretend she's acquired those same skills?

And if, after her technical boost, Ms. Moose Jaw's end result is comparable to Joyce's own work, well… maybe it's time for Joyce to wonder how Garry Kasparov felt when he got beaten by Deep Blue.

I am, frankly, not seeing the problem. And I wonder where Joyce draws the line for acceptable tech for writing assistance? Does she use a spell checker? Does she even use a word processor at all, or does she peck at a Smith-Corona, like she did in the 1970s? (Using Wite-Out: another "pesky skill".)

Would she find Grammarly acceptable? (It seems to suggest edits just like a human editor might.)

I do not need to tell you how I feel about this.                                                                  

"But I am going to anyway."

It’s nothing less than the death of art. My parents, who raised my sister and me on the literature of the Western canon, would die, themselves, if they weren’t long dead already.

This, um, seems a little overwrought. And clunky.

But it inspired this post's headline, mutating the title of an old Frank Zappa song.

And that made me wonder: no doubt some smart people are working on the music side of AI. If you fed a "large music model" AI with the works of Frank Zappa, could it produce… new Zappa-like music?

That would no doubt horrify some people. And some other people might say: why didn't you do Bach instead?

But there might be a goodly fraction of folks that might enjoy it, and say: Gee, thanks. I miss Frank, and I'm glad to have this.

What's wrong with that? Honest question: is that somehow awful? Why?

(Disclaimer: I was never a Zappa fan. I was a teenage SF geek, so my fantasy AI would produce, with the kind permission of Isaac Asimov's estate, more robot detective novels. Written in first-person by R. Daneel Olivaw. There would be no clinging or secrets, at least not in the first paragraph.)

There is so much more to be said about all of this, but I’ve got a day filled with writing ahead of me. Real writing. Not typing instructions into an AI site. I’m talking about what I’ve been doing for fifty years now, getting up at five am and putting in long days at my desk, considering every syllable, every sentence, the placement of every comma and period, the sound of the words I choose. ( Reading them out loud , alone at my desk, to hear how they sound.)

Arduous! But not to be confused with coal mining.

And I assume that Joyce, given her techno-aversion, eschews even that typewriter mentioned above, using instead a quill pen and parchment.

There will be those who offer up all kinds of reasons why AI can be a good thing for us all. Have at it. In the world of art and music and literature, it can mean only one thing: The eradication of what is uniquely human in each of us. The death of what is most precious and beautiful, the soul and spirit with which we were born. That is irreplaceable.

I'm not totally unsympathetic. But talk about an "irreplaceable" "soul and spirit" is getting pretty deep into the woo-woo. The big brains have been looking into the mind pretty deeply for years, and have been unable to find any trace of anything besides boring old biochemistry powered by boring old electromagnetism. With a small chance that there might be some quantum coin-flipping in microtubules.

Nevertheless, I believe (seemingly like Joyce) that there is something going on inside us that gives rise to consciousness, actual non-illusory free will, creativity, and all that human stuff that causes us to write Facebook and blog posts.

And I believe this arises as an "emergent property" of a sufficiently complex array of neurochemical processes, no woo-woo involved.

(N.B.: when I say I "believe": that's in the sense that I have zero scientific evidence for that belief, other than my own introspection.)

But another conclusion of that belief is: that free will (with its associated phenomena) can also occur in non-biological "sufficiently complex" computer hardware and software. That hasn't happened yet (I'm pretty sure) but I don't see any reason why it might not happen, and sooner than we might think.

In other words: not the "eradication of what is uniquely human in each of us." Instead, we're going to have "precious and beautiful" company, of our own making. At that point it won't be "artificial" intelligence. It will be the real thing.

That might fill Joyce Maynard with fear and loathing, but … too bad.

OK, so I'm all better now.