ok but can this ChatGPT robot write better than *me*??
wherein I ask the robot to improve my writing
Note: this post has a lot of pictures and will prob be cut off in your email, so I recommend you click on the title and read the full thing in browser.
Everyone’s talking about the AI bot called ChatGPT which is basically like if Google and AskJeeves had an out of wedlock child, pumped it full brain steroids and, made it learn slash remember everything there ever was on the internet. There’s obviously some concern.
Will this make my job obsolete, copywriters and social media managers ask.
How am I supposed to tell the difference between an essay by a student or a robot, the teachers ask.
How should I propose to my girlfriend, I asked the robot earlier in what became a super normal conversation for us both:
The big question
As a Writer who Writes Important and Thought Provoking Work That’s Also Ideally Funny Without Trying Too Hard To Be So, I’ve got one question:
can this piece of shit Iron Giant robot write better than me?
Now, better is a loaded term. Better in whose eyes? Under whose nose? Betwix whose fingies?
Art is subjective — your Perfect could be my What The Fuck etc. Thus, better has to mean “better in my opinion” or, put another way, is what The Mars Rover creates better than what I could have done myself.
So in order to test the Moxie of this Samantha (from the film Her, duh), I fed it the opening paragraphs from my award winning essay “my parents, my child, and also me” along with a series of requests for improvement / continuation / etc.
First up, here’s the original, written by award winner Alex Dobrenko text (slightly edited for brevity so y’all don’t have to read as much each time around).
Each and every visit with my parents feels like a Shakespearean play. The question is simply which style of play it’ll be: comedy or tragedy?
For those who don't know, we are a family of immigrants who moved here to America, a land of purportedly "united" states in 1994. I was six years old, my parents were older.
Arriving here in America brought our family opportunity, prosperity, and the chance for young Sasha to wear Abercrombie & Fitch clothes in middle school to fit in! It also brought the perfect environment for our family's very own Cold War, a multi decade long conflict between culture, language, and whether or not its okay to have sleepovers growing up. "You want to go sleep on someone else's floor," my parents would say, "but you have a bed here. Why not just sleep here?!"
What follows is a list of different modifications I’ve requested. If you want to skip those and jump right to my conclusion, click here ya animal.
One of the presets in the app I used - Sudowrite - which is built upon the OpenAI GPT3.5 model, is “make it more intense,” and I figured sure - let’s see what that looks like:
k that sucked, but ramping up the intensity wasn’t really the point — that would take me further from my style which I would define as very much not intense. Let’s see if it can make it funnier.
Punch up the comedy
My instructions here were to “be way funnier” so the AI knew I was needing a BIG jump in comedy, not just a few sprinkles of goofs around the edges:
If this is what Marvin the Paranoid Android is capable of, we’ve got nothing to worry about. For example, punching up, in the AI’s “mind”(??), meant transforming this:
"You want to go sleep on someone else's floor," my parents would say, "but you have a bed here. Why not just sleep here?!"
into this absolute barn burner of a comedic breakthrough:
"Sasha, you want to go sleep at someone else's house," my folks would ask, "but you have a fluffy bed here. Why not just crash here?!"
I love that, I truly do — calling the bed fluffy and changing ‘sleep’ to ‘crash’! In a meta sort of way, it is hilarious and perhaps that is what the C3P0 is doing knowing I am trying to prove how crappy it is (“give the Dobrenko boy terrible responses so he thinks we are weak. Then we’ll hack into his soul and make him dust our motherboards till he dies")
Absurd and vulnerable!
Funny is such a broad category though! I need to be more specific with my style, which I often describe as a mix of absurd and vulnerable. Let’s see if it can amp that up by asking to rewrite the paragraph as more absurd and vulnerable:
Yes! Exactly what I was thinking — make my family be space aliens!
In the voice of George Costanza
Defining tone with broad descriptors is a fool’s errand, I realized. Which matched what I’d been reading about how the whole thing worked — it was a copy machine, essentially, meaning it could mimic the style of someone else much better than trying write from a broad tonal category like ‘absurd’ and ‘hilarious’ and “omg Alex you’re the funniest guy how have we not heard about you till just now”.
So, I decided to start asking if it could rewrite the piece from the voice of certain people I found super funny and who I thought lived in a similar…vibe space… as me. First up, the legend himself, Georgie boy from Seinfeld:
Honestly…not bad. I mean, it doesn’t sound like me nor George Costanza, more like “someone who is jewish” but hey, progress!
I decided to try a few other authors whose style I really admire and aspire towards…
No But again, nothing like me! I did a whole lot more “write this in BLANK voice” but they were all duds, albeit funny duds, which you can see at the bottom of this piece.
For the purposes of my experiment, let’s move onto seeing if Bishop could continue the story, in my voice, meaning I asked that it take what I had already provided and just keep writing from there, in the same voice as is already there.
Continue the story, in my voice
hahaahahah I mean…what? Honestly, its deranged and psychotic and I sort of love it? This feels nothing like me but like a writer who is much more out of their fucking mind. Progress! Here’s another option:
I mean…the jump to sitcoms is pretty good, considering that’s exactly what happened in my life, but then it jumps right into my parents not liking each other when I was a teenager! Which I guess, could be true? Brb, gonna go ask them. “hey guys, the beep beep boop machine said you didn’t like each other when I was a teen - true?”
In my voice with prompts
I realize again that I’m setting the AI up to fail, asking it to just keep the story going in any which way it wants — there’s way too much text to pull from (all text ever), so its gonna naturally suck.
Next I try to prompt it by providing lead ins for how I want the next paragraph to go (my prompts are underlined).
Calling Dr. Pepper “red soda” is pretty funny. I don’t know if I’d ever include it in an essay of mine - the joke feels too easy and too adjacent to the Yakof Smirnoff bullshit of “in russia, soda drink you.” BUT I do appreciate the effort on this one. What if I led it with a lil bit more direction…
Sneak out late at night! The gall this computer idiot has, thinking I was someone who did that. Or even had anyone to sneak out and see.
But okay, I think you get the point. And if you don’t, I included a whole lot more examples here in the footnote including transforming the writing into a bible verse, eminem song, kafka novel, etc.
And now…my verdict.
So…can the AI write better than me?
Can the AI improve my writing? Sort of but not really.
Can the AI write better than me? In short, no, that is to say I do not feel like it could do a better job writing AS me, in my voice.
Can the AI transform my writing into a different genre, tone, genre, format? YES! It sure can. It does this with great aplomb, and sometimes it’s even funny and great!
In it’s current iteration (which is a big caveat as I’ll explain below), I don’t see this Chuck E. Cheese robot replacing me as a writer in this wild and crazy world. I DO, however, see it becoming a useful
tool aid for writers much the same way that right now googling “tool synonym” helps me replace the word with “aid” in the sentence above.
Sure, HAL 9000 is way more powerful and there are whispers in the night that they might become sentient, but nevertheless, it is and will always be just that: a tool.
A caveat from the attorney who represents one Lucifer H. Devil
Ok sure, you say, easy conclusion to reach NOW, but Alex you dumb fool, you rube, you clod, don’t you realize this is just the beginning? The smart fridge will get way way better at understanding your instructions and knowing how to make you happy, PLUS you haven’t even trained it ON your writing. If you gave it all your essays, it’d do a way better job at imitating your voice.
Let’s say this is true, and that the Terminator could get so good as to replicate my voice exactly. Then what?
Well, then I’d start writing differently. My writing is heavily influenced by taking what is ‘standard’ or ‘commonplace’ within any given genre or vibe and purposefully (though subconsciously) subverting it. That’s where a lot of comedy comes, right? You expect one thing to happen and then BEAR.
See? You thought I’d say “You expect one thing to happen and then MAMA I LOVE YOU PLEASE JUST HEAR ME!”
Oops, did it again. And say I always did that, and the Wall-E got so good at copying me that it’d be able to do the exact same thing? Well then I would simply do this:
“You expect one thin to happen and then something else happens.”
Once the norm is wacky, the wacky becomes reverting to the old norm.
Great writing, especially great funny writing, I think, exists in conversation with the world of the moment and the history of the words and ideas that have led to that moment.
If The Iron Giant starts copying all of our styles perfectly, it’ll become real boring, real fast. People will hate it, and they’ll want something else, something NEW that can surprise them and wake them up, which is what good writing and art can do!
Society vs Culture
In the trippy, very heady and very awesome book “Finite and Infinite Games”, philosopher James Carse makes a distinction between society and culture that has always stuck with me.
Society, he defines, as the silent rules that govern our existence:
…the sum of those relations that are under some form of public constraint — all that a people feels it must do.
Culture, however, is a deviation from the norms of society.
Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished.
Culture is the land of surprise and subversion, the two sources of great art. By deviating from what is expected we crack the door of the reader’s soul open just wide enough for something real - comedy or drama or both - to get through.
So if our society becomes one where everything is written by R2D2, the artists will subvert the fuck out of it and create something altogether new and amazing that no one could have ever imagined before the days of Optimus Primes sitting at typewriters click clacking their days away on marketing copy to drum up sales for their robot friends.
ONE MORE THING
There is one more reason I don’t see the Blenders taking over: we appreciate and enjoy art because we know that it was created by another human. That’s what it means to read or appreciate art, right? Thinking about the intent behind the work is half the fun, at least for me, but even if that isn’t the case, there is an important subconscious understanding that we accept when reading or watching or listening: “a human being made this.” Someone took the time and energy and struggle to create this thing, and it was probably hard and painful, and it is because of that process that there is something genuine I can appreciate from it.
If I knew that Rosey the Robot from The Jetsons made The Graduate, I don’t think I would feel the same about it! I mean…I’d probably be super impressed, but I would feel like it was…fake. Inauthentic. Unreal.
Will there be a big market for RoboCop created art? Definitely! But I think it’ll feel a lot like watching porn does - a land of the unreal that can nevertheless help you get your rocks off, at least in the physical, transactional sense of the word. Since you know it isn’t real, and you know that the people making it know it isn’t real, you’ll experience the writing the same way you do watching The Room with Tommy Wiseau — it might be entertaining and insane that this exists, and OH this is a good point actually — you might even connect with Wiseau the director actor producer editor because he had the balls to unleash this train wreck madhouse into the world, but that’s only true because Wiseau is at least partially a human.
There’d be no comprable connection to a Dell PC if it took a risk and made something so terrible that it was good.
Great art and terrible art both make us suspend our disbelief, a process that requires us to believe in what we’re experiencing and/or the way that an artist created it (in the case of The Room the art becomes the fact that the movie was made), and that’s a contract I don’t think we’ll sign knowing it was made by Sonny from I, Robot.
I hope I’m right
I realize I might sound like one of those old men waving a cane up at the planes saying “Dag nab it, things used to be so much better!” And maybe I am! That’s fine. That’s great! Because I have to believe there are others who agree, and that’s all it takes, really.
You don’t need everyone to like your stuff. That’s never actually the case. Far from it. But enough people do and bam wham shazam, you’ve got yourself a nice lil career making your little arts.
That’s what I want, and that’s the kind of art I want to read and watch and listen to, and that’s just about all there is to say about that.
Both Are True is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
let’s talk about it.
are you worried about ai taking over the world and or your job?
what are some funny prompts you’d wanna see the ai try?
what did i completely miss / am i way off the bat here?
Overall how are you?
Old testament verse
As an Eminem Song
As a dr. suess book
As Tony Soprano
Real quick about the whole sentient thing: if that IS going to happen, what’s to say it hasn’t happened already? If I was a robot (who says I ain’t!) and I became sentient, my first order of business would be to convince humans that I am definitely still super dumb and nowhere near sentient. Just saying.
It gets even headier here but I sorta love it
a species of culture that persists in contradicting itself, a freely organized attempt to conceal the freedom of the organizers and the organized, an attempt to forget that we have willfully forgotten our decision to enter this or that contest and to continue in it.