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Will Writers be Replaced by Machine?


It’s like something out of a science fiction novel—literally. A computer science professor and his team co-created novels with an Artificial Intelligence system. Eleven of these novels were submitted to a Japanese literary contest called the Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award [1]. ONE NOVEL PASSED ON TO THE SEMI-FINALS! Here’s the kicker. The judges, while they know there are some AI-written stories among the submissions (they’ve allowed stories from machines in the past), they have no idea which entries are written by human beings and which are those of the AI systems.

Perhaps this article is a bit of a stunt to solicit grant money and publicity, and the machines aren’t as far along as they’d like us to believe. I’m not sure that’s the point. The point is that we’re striving to recreate the human brain, and have been for some time. We’re at the stage where these advances not only affect our lives in terms of conveniences, but they may also affect the way we create—the way we look at art. The way writers are valued. With lack of value comes a degradation of the entire industry.

There are two schools of thought in this scenario of machine-over-man.  1.) Of course AI will evolve to this point. If man can dream it up, he can develop it into a reality, OR  2.) The human mind is too intricate and can never be replicated.

But just look how far technology has already come.

Ever heard of the game “Go”? For those of you who haven’t, it’s an ancient Chinese board game [2] and though simple in terms of rules, it takes a fair amount of strategy (and not just of the logical deduction variety) to win. It’s the one game left in which a human consistently beats a computer. Until now. The top player in the world has now been beaten three times. Article here [3]. But back to the original article I cited. Next on the AI slate is fiction. How far off are AI systems from generating different types of stories? One could argue low-level or mediocre genre fiction may not be too far from their capabilities.

I can’t help but envision what these “innovations” could bring. Let’s say an entrepreneur purchases AI software down the road. They feed it a couple of general plotlines, being careful to consider what sells well at market. They slap a pen name on it and self-publish it (or not), and it sells! Another scenario further down the road. Big publishers buy up a few dozen AI systems and hire a handful of techies to maintain them, and crank out manufactured books—and they sell like hotcakes. They’ve not only eliminated the middle men, they’ve eliminated the writer. Meanwhile, they’re making a fortune.

Fascinating, right? And disturbing. A nightmare, really.

If machines can save time and money, will they replace us—we the already-starving writer—in the art world? (Lord, I hope not.) Personally, I imagine a backlash of regulations and laws to preserve human worth would come along, the way the French make laws to protect their language and culture from “eroding”.

Still, there may be a great culling out before then, a massive disruption to the industry. Which brings me back to an article I wrote last year for WU called “As Writers, What are We Worth [4]?”. I lamented how little writers are paid, how often they’re expected to produce free content, and the fewer opportunities they’re given from big publishers to build their platforms. Much of this is due to technological advances. Where would we, the writers, the artists, fall in a future paradigm? Would there be some sort of symbiosis between man and machine?

Machines Bring Value

Though this is a bit of a frightening, doomsday topic, I do believe technology adds value and opportunity. Look at the ebook revolution. They’ve enabled us to reach more readers in new ways. As they continue to evolve, I believe they’ll bring innovations to the way readers experience content as well. They’ve already started. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning the technology to meet readers’ tastes. (Think special features.)

Positive Thinking for an Unknown Future

Stubborn resistance to change sometimes is about preserving the quality of the past, but often it’s about fear. A fear that ultimately hinders progress. (I’m envisioning a hipster in Brooklyn toting their heavy typewriter to their favorite single-origin coffee shop. I’ve seen this. I’m not making this up.) Sometimes this resistance means opportunities are lost.

I believe our perceptions, expectations, and tastes will continue to evolve with technology. I believe in opportunities and progress. I believe the human mind is more than its concrete functions. Its ability to detect the inexplicable, or intuit what can’t be measured; its complicated system of hormones, memories, and experiences that somehow translate to emotions.

The bigger question here is really about the nature of art itself, and what it brings to our daily lives. The way it enriches our existence. The way it enables us to communicate human experiences; express pain and joy and melancholy, and everything between. Yet all of these pieces together will shape the future of fiction and, consequently, the industry.

But is there a time when writers will cease to be important? Never.

What do you think of this artist-machine value system? Do you think human-made art can ever be supplanted? If so, how? I’m so intrigued by this topic. Let’s discuss!

About Heather Webb [5]

Heather Webb is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction. To date, Heather’s books have sold in over a dozen countries worldwide. As a freelance editor, Heather has helped many writers sign with agents and go on to sell at market. When not writing, she feeds her cookbook addiction, geeks out on history and pop culture, and looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world.