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AI (Part 2): ArtificiaI Intelligence Tries Its Hand at Writing and Drawing

In part one of this series on artificial intelligence, I talked about the increasing interest in using AI as a tool for writing (and other things). The idea has been greeted with anticipation by some (“Microsoft Bets Big on the Creator of ChatGPT in Race to Dominate A.I.”, Jan. 13, 2023, NYT), dread by others (see “Alarmed by A.I. Chatbots, Universities Start Revamping How They Teach”, Jan. 17, 2023, NYT) and challenge by the professionals (“Google calls In Help From Larry Page and Sergey Brin for A.I. Fight”, Jan. 20, 2023). The hype from venture capitalists has already matched previous technology excesses.

Being curious, I checked out some of these new tools for both art creation and writing. I’m not alone in making such an ask. Here’s a link to Writer Unboxed, who did a deep dive into the subject.

In a 2021 New Yorker article, “The Computers Are Getting Better At Writing”, Stephen Marche adds to Kafka’s famous story, “Metamorphosis” using the Sudowrite AI tool (you’ll doubtless recall my April 30, 2022 post on Kafka). Here’s the result:

“As soon as Gregor was alone, he began to feel ill. Turning around was an effort. Even breathing was an effort. A thin stream of blood trickled from his flank down his fuzzy belly. He wanted to crawl away from it, but there was no place to go. He lay still on the spot where he had come to rest just in order to get his breath back and to stop the bleeding. “I’m in a bad way,” said Gregor. It had never occurred to him before that he could really become ill. He had seen sick animals—a dove once in a while, which had fallen out of the nestling into the gutter and could not fly any more, or the weak infants of the woman next door who had to be picked up with the tongs and thrown into the dustbin, or the bugs his father used to bring to him when he was still a young boy and which he had liked so much.”

A pretty credible effort, if you ask me.

In my earlier post, I mentioned the Midjourney art creation tool. Here’s what I came up with for a picture of Eider ducks (asking for a woodcut version of a female eider duck looking at herself in a frozen pond):

I actually thought it came out well. A polar bear on an ice floe, surprisingly, was less successful (see below); perhaps at my time of asking there’d been few requests for polar bear pictures (or my specific ask was deficient).

For those who can’t recall the first two sentences of volume one of The Ravenstones, Eirwen and Fridis, (it was over 2 1/2 years ago), here they are:

“The polar bear awoke with a start. He raised his head, looked around and saw he was resting on a smooth, wide sheet of ice.”

I entered those two sentences into Sudowrite, which then gave me three options: describe the i) bear, ii) the sheet of ice or iii) the polar bear waking up, each one providing ideas for the various senses: sound, smell, sight, taste and touch, as well as several ‘metaphorical’ descriptions for the scene.

Option #1 (Sight):

“The sheet was white, as bright as the sun. It reflected the light, making it difficult to look straight at it. It was a clean sheet, perfect and massive.

The ice was hard and cold to the touch. Its surface a lacework of cracks and fissures, which seemed to swirl in a vortex of colors.

The sheet of ice was polished and clear. It showed its layers of color, its history of ice, cold, and storms.”

Option #2 (Smell):

“The sheet was cool to the touch, crisp and fresh. There was a hint of salt, the smell of a forest, the smell of rain before a storm. The sheet carried with it a gentle breeze.

The ice smelled of ozone, like the crackling of a storm.

The ice smelled of cabbage leaves and the sea.”

Option #3 (Sound):

“The ice was silent except for the slow, rhythmic thump, thump, thump of the polar bear’s heart.

The ice was as solid and impenetrable as a glacier. It was like a window to the distant sea, you could see the passage of fish and whales, but it would take more than a lifetime for you to cross.”

Option #4 (Taste):

“As you approached the sheet, it smelled like rain before a storm. The closer you get, the cooler it felt. It tasted salty, like the sea. The closer you get, the more you could taste the forest. The trees, the flowers, the dirt, the smell of pine and the smell of the earth.”

Option #5 (Touch):

“The ice felt smooth, like a giant polished mirror. The icy sheet was not cold like one might expect, but warm to the touch.

The bear’s claws dug deep into raft of ice and he could feel the cold seeping into his fur and skin.

The ice was cold, but its surface was smooth and solid. It was smooth like a glacier, but hard like a wall of ice. It was impossible to climb.”

Option #6 (Metaphorical):

“The sheet was flamboyant and astounding, it was a sheet of twinkling pearls stringing off the surface of the river.”

I was impressed by what was suggested. Now I’m not given to writing a lot of description in my story-telling. In fact, in many cases, I believe it gets in the way of the flow. I, on the other hand, just want to get on with the story. And while I love Charles Dickens and his detailed narration (in one of his Christmas stories, it took him a page and a half to say: the wind blew down the chimney), I don’t think it works for this modern era (who’s got the time or patience?). The point with Sudowrite is that you pick and choose amongst an array of ideas, get further stimulation and carry on. The danger lies in the erstwhile writer simply adopting every idea and sticking them in holus-bolus. At that point, individual creativity falls away.

Sudowrite also provides the opportunity to find plot twists and character ideas, as well as a brainstorming section (for dialogue, characters, world building, names, places, objects, plot points, etc.). I typed in the following in that section: “A polar bear’s friends have disappeared.” Unfortunately, so far Sudowrite has no experience with stories based on animals. It came up with the following ideas, none of which would have worked for me: “His mom got a promotion and now has to travel for work.” “His grandfather, who is the only living relative, dies and leaves him a huge debt that he can’t pay off.” “His little sister is diagnosed with a disease he can’t pronounce.” “He and his boyfriend get in a fight.”

However, the brainstorming section does allow one to pick a genre and go off in several directions, e.g. asking about how a protagonist and villain might interact, how a character might grow, how the heroes might get together for a climactic fight scene, how the antihero protagonist and another lead character could fall in love and so on.

As noted above, image options for a polar bear waking up on a large ice floe were much less successful:

Not a good likeness of a polar bear (my efforts in late 2022)

While I was in the process of drafting this post (early October 2022), Dall-E, another art-rendering AI tool, became available to the public. The attached NPR news story shows some examples of ideas from NPR staff.

Ultimately, I asked the Sudowrite app to draft a short story about a polar bear in the style of Agatha Christie. The app understood that such a tale must include mystery, a detective (in this case an explorer in a blue suit), a classic cozy small town setting and a satisfying conclusion. Here’s how the story begins:

“The Sea Town was a quiet and quaint place, where life moved at a slow, steady pace. The sun shone brightly over the cobblestone streets, and the gentle hum of activity was ever-present. It was a pleasant and peaceful place, but something was about to change.” An excellent beginning; the rest of it can be found here.

My next idea was to ask for a short story about a polar bear in the style of Marcel Proust. Since In Search of Lost Time (published in seven volumes) contains 3,031 pages and 1,267,069 words, I would expect the result to invoke some significant memories and be a whole lot longer. Unfortunately, my Sudowrite trial period had expired and I had to find a new source. I chose ChatGPT; here is what it produced:

“Once upon a time, in the vast and frigid expanses of the Arctic, there lived a majestic polar bear named Marcel. Marcel lived a simple life, wandering the frozen tundra and swimming in the icy waters in search of food.

“But despite his solitude, Marcel’s mind was filled with the sweetest of memories, memories of a time long past, when the world was young and filled with the wonder of life. Marcel often reflected upon these memories, lost in the world of his thoughts, as he gazed out upon the endless sea of ice.

“And yet, despite the frigid winds that howled across the tundra, Marcel felt a warm and comforting sense of home within himself, for he was surrounded by the memories of his family, his friends, and all the joys of life.

“And so, Marcel roamed the Arctic, content in the knowledge that he was surrounded by the warmth of his memories, even as the world around him grew colder and more distant.

“And thus, Marcel lived out his days, wandering the frozen tundra and lost in his thoughts, always searching for that elusive spark of wonder that had once filled his heart with joy and happiness.

“For Marcel, the Arctic was not just a barren wasteland, but a place of warmth, of memories, and of love, a place where he would forever call home.”

The result was a lot shorter than I would have thought but ChatGPT certainly understood what Proust was all about – remembrance of things past. I also like how it named the bear Marcel. That being said, it was without the nuance and depth of In Search of Lost Time.

I decided my instructions needed to be more specific, as follows: “create a longer story about a polar bear whose recollections of childhood and experiences into adulthood bring about reflections on the loss of time and lack of meaning in the world, in the style of Marcel Proust”. Here’s what it proposed:

“Once upon a time, in the vast and frigid expanses of the Arctic, there lived a majestic polar bear named Marcel. Marcel lived a simple life, wandering the frozen tundra and swimming in the icy waters in search of food.

“But despite the simplicity of his life, Marcel was constantly haunted by memories of his childhood, memories of a time when the world was full of wonder and the future seemed bright and promising. He remembered the laughter of his family, the warmth of their embrace, and the thrill of the chase as they hunted together.

“As Marcel grew older, he began to realize that these memories were slowly slipping away, like ice melting under the warm sun. He could feel the weight of time bearing down upon him, a reminder of his own mortality and the transience of life.

“And as Marcel wandered the tundra, he often found himself reflecting upon the meaning of life, on the loss of time, and the emptiness that seemed to pervade the world. He wondered why he and his kin were here, why they lived and hunted and roamed the Arctic, only to die and be forgotten.

“Despite these musings, Marcel felt a deep love for his life and for the world around him. He cherished the memories of his childhood and the simple joys of life, even as he faced the inevitability of death.

“And as Marcel roamed the Arctic, he came to a realization that the meaning of life was not something that could be found, but something that had to be created. He decided that the best way to live was to cherish every moment, to find joy in the present, and to create new memories to pass down to future generations.

“And so, Marcel lived out his days, wandering the frozen tundra, always searching for that elusive spark of wonder that had once filled his heart with joy and happiness. He lived with purpose, with love, and with gratitude, knowing that the memories he created would endure long after he was gone.

“For Marcel, the Arctic was not just a barren wasteland, but a place of warmth, of memories, and of love, a place where he would forever call home. And as he roamed its frozen expanses, Marcel was content in the knowledge that his life had been lived with meaning, and that his memories would continue to shine long after he was gone.”

This time, ChatGPT brought a lot more to the table. It looked to the past, found real meaning in it and found resolution, producing a satisfying conclusion. Full marks, given its length.

Finally, I went back to DALL-E for pictures of a contemplative polar bear. Here are a couple of results, better but still not perfect, though the fault may lie more in my instructions:

So what can we conclude about the latest AI advancements so far? Here’s a few:

  • At the most basic level, they hold out the promise for speeded-up results from enquiries, freeing up time to create. They will change how people work, reducing formulaic tasks and encouraging brainstorming.
  • Thinking more broadly, AI outputs are only as good as the inputs, both collective and individual; AI can only provide a compendium of past ideas but cannot create new ones (not yet anyway).
  • Like every advancement/revolution, the menial jobs will be destroyed, while new, more challenging ones will be created.
  • AI will keep learning, improving and becoming more powerful, and the cycle of promise and fear will continue to plague us into the future.

Since first drafting this post, news of new developments continues apace. On Mar. 13, ChatGPT unveiled its latest iteration of the technology, GPT-4, presenting another advance on its original capabilities. But as Lauren Goodlad and Samuel Baker of Public Books remind us (Feb. 20, 2023), AI “bears little resemblance to the human thought processes to which it is incessantly compared” both by those who embrace it and those who fear it. It can only replicate what exists in its vast databases, it cannot autogenerate “strong or original writing of any kind.” We’ve a long way to go before writers have anything to fear.

Cover Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash