Thursday, March 7, 2024

On Writing With AI

 This post was written without AI, beyond maybe Google autocorrect.

Doing this stream of consciousness. Need to answer the question: Why do people want to write with AI, is that evil, and is it ever justified?

Start with the "why". Go back to my own experiences. Experience one: 

I'm a published author of multiple works under CURSED PEN NAMES REDACTED, but the one thing I take credit for is The Assassin's Dilemma, a Warhammer Fantasy short story in the Death & Dishonour collection. 

I do not plagiarize and I have never used AI, but if you happen to read that story and you're familiar with the old Warhammer fiction you might notice that I was heavily aping William King's style. Not ripping passages out or anything, just trying to channel the cowardly viciousness of the Skaven he wrote so well over multiple Gotrek & Felix books. This is something that's generally considered accepted practice while you're learning - Stephen King calls it out in On Writing, to name one example.

Does this somehow make it acceptable to train an AI on the books of an author you like and use it for your own work? To my mind, no. In a legal sense, probably "fuck, no". Mimicking an author's style as a starting author is about gaining insights, like "Terry Pratchett doesn't spend a lot of time on character description and averages one joke per sentence". Having an AI play word scramble might provide some insights, but it's more likely to create non-actionable data analysis fodder like "Nathaniel Hawthorne frequently uses the word 'is'" (I have no idea if this is true).

Okay, author self has ruled out AI. Moving to experience two. Brace for tangent:

I'm currently building a top-down role playing video game based on Hansel & Gretel. (Everyone starts somewhere.) I am currently using RPG Maker MV. RPG Maker is a game engine where most of the features you need to build an RPG are baked in, including tile maps, character sprites, items, switches, rooms, enemies, combat mechanics, etc.

I originally started the game in GameMaker Studio. GameMaker has a lot of pre-built features for games, but they are non-specific, which means you need to build a lot of them yourself (see: everything I listed that RPG Maker has above). I got to the point where I had a game where a character could move between rooms using grid-based movement and have a second character follow them around, which is *pretty good* but I had a long way to go.

Because this Hansel & Gretel game is me proving a point to myself and not my dream project, I elected to use RPG Maker instead and cut out a lot of the engine work I'd have to do to get things going with GameMaker. I am very conscious that when want to make a different style of game, I am going to have to abandon RPG Maker for something else, but it provides the tools I need for now.

Which brings me back to the topic: RPG Maker is a tool to make games that ships with a bunch of pre-built assets for you to use. And you can use these assets and the tool as-is. But but BUT, the truth is that a game made with stock RPG Maker assets is going to be dismissed by most people because all those included tools and assets are pretty bland. The RPG Maker games that succeed are the ones that take the engine, replace all the stock assets, and bend the hell out of the defaults to create something unique, some new gaming experience.

So one might argue: what if I prompt an AI to generate a book, based on my own ideas and characters, and then edit the hell out of it until it's something unique, a new reading experience?



Well. First, this doesn't solve the problem of AI being trained on content that the authors didn't consent to offer up for that purpose. That's one of the sticking points of the whole practice. But let's argue that someone creates an AI that's trained on public domain content *only*.

The next problem is that writers are lazy stumblebums. (Or: I am a lazy stumblebum, and I am generalizing my inferiority complex to an entire profession.) If you're already using AI to write the first draft of your novel, what exactly is stopping you from leaving in great chunks of purely AI-generated content? I mean, it's not impossible that the AI came up with a really great sentence you wish you'd thought of. Who would know, right? (Probably everyone.)

And that hints at the last problem, which is: writing is a learned, practiced skill. Using an AI to generate great swathes of text you revise does not teach you how to structure a story. It does not teach you how to write believable, sympathetic, hateable, hilarious characters. It does not teach you how to make people laugh, cry, shout, or just put the book down for a second and stare into space.

An inexperienced writer using an AI to write their book is going to create garbage at worst (which to be fair is true with or without the AI), but at best it's going to be work that's like an RPG Maker game made with just the default assets. It will lack evidence of craft.

An experienced writer using an AI to write their book... may write a good book. A great one? I don't know. I doubt it. But to my mind, any AI available now will just be a distracting addition to the writer's existing process.

I'm going to call Joanna Penn out a bit now just because she's the first author who tried to sell me on using AI in my writing through her mailing list. (I unsubscribed.)

Her basic process for writing a short story as described on her website was: 1. write a basic story, 2. use a tool to expand on sensory descriptions and flesh out events, 3. incorporate the text into her story after heavy editing, 4. run the story through an online editor software, 5. run the story through a human editor, 6. use an AI to generate a book cover and 7. brainstorm a title.

In line with my thoughts: 1 and 5 are obviously fine. 7 I don't really mind, it's like using a random word generator or a jar of word magnets for inspiration. (Disclaimer: I may use anagram generators for vampire names in some yet-to-be-published works.) And 4 seems reasonable given that it's suggestions on how to modify existing text, rather than writing it in full.

But 2 and 3 run smack into the problems I see with trying to edit an AI's text - it's not yours, and the temptation is to leave more and more of it in, without learning what's good about it and what isn't. And 6, the book cover, is the poster child for content-stealing AI.

I do get the temptation to delegate descriptive text to an AI. I'm shit at it myself. But it's a compromise. You can argue it's the same compromise a one-man-band game developer makes when they buy an asset pack or a sound library. Maybe that's a fair argument. But until AI can clean up its ethics issues, I don't think it's one that will win me over.