We were at a memorial service for a family friend who died a few months back. During a period of stories and remembrances, a man got up and said he had lived next door to P for a number of years; that they often had coffee in the morning or a beer in the afternoon, and would talk about many things; that in his professional life he developed AI; that he and P would have extended conversations about AI. P had been a journalist, published in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Life magazine and other publications. P, of course, felt AI would never be able to write as well as a good human writer. It lacked experience of the world. P knew about experience with the world. He traveled extensively, was an expert spear fisherman, and quite the lady’s man. He wrote from his experiences. He wrote well. How could AI match that without his direct experience of the cosmos?
After the memorial service, my 92 year old mother-in-law asked me what I thought about AI. I told her that AI is here to stay; that it will get better at making human beings feel; that I wondered what the place of humanity would become in relation to it.
Much of the criticism of AI centers on the human experience which AI will never have. Because it will never have that experience, it will never be able to create as well as the best writers or artists or musicians.
When the essay, called “Ghosts,” came out in The Believer in the summer of 2021, it quickly went viral. I started hearing from others who had lost loved ones and felt that the piece captured grief better than anything they’d ever read. I waited for the backlash, expecting people to criticize the publication of an AI-assisted piece of writing. It never came. Instead the essay was adapted for This American Life and anthologized in Best American Essays. It was better received, by far, than anything else I’d ever written.1
In Confessions of a Viral AI Writer, Vauhini Vara writes about the experience of having an essay written with the assistance of AI go viral. She talks about her ambivalence about having sought assistance from AI to write an essay about the death of her sister at a young age. She tells us that she has decided not to use AI for anything more than research going forward.
I don’t know where, in the pantheon of writers and journalists, Ms. Vara falls. Her Wired article seemed well enough written. In the viral AI-assisted article, AI provided her with the description of a moment between her and her dying sister that, as she described it, was pivotal to the essay. It also wasn’t something that had actually happened between them. Poetic license I suppose. You tell a little bit of a lie because it gets at a bigger truth, or a fuller emotion, which certainly was there. Would she have come up with this line herself, or would her knowledge of what did and didn’t happen between her and her sister have made that difficult? AI didn’t have that knowledge and was free to indulge in a plausible fantasy for the situation.
Ms. Vara writes in her essay that,
… writing is an attempt to clarify what the world is like from where I stand in it.
If writing is my attempt to clarify what the world is like for me, the problem with AI is not just that it can’t come up with an individual perspective on the world. It’s that it can’t even comprehend what the world is.2
This, I think, is the core truth of the matter. Writing, is how writers understand themselves in relation to the cosmos, and good writing helps fellow travelers locate themselves within that cosmos. Since civilization became a thing, we have been understanding and locating ourselves through story telling, which requires human to human connection. Story teller to story listener. Writer to reader. Whether it be an oral tradition, scrawling on papyrus, or keyboarding collections of ones and zeros into the cloud, it is a chain of relationship, of connection.
If we retain AI to write for us, how are we gaining that understanding of self and world? How are we weaving humanity together?
But what if I, the writer, don’t matter? I joined a Slack channel for people using Sudowrite3 and scrolled through the comments. One caught my eye, posted by a mother who didn’t like the bookstore options for stories to read to her little boy. She was using the product to compose her own adventure tale for him. Maybe, I realized, these products that are supposedly built for writers will actually be of more use to readers? 4
The corporate capitalist drive to mechanize everything humans can do devalues what it means to be human. To be removed from craft is to be removed from our humanity. In his essay, _Buddhist Economics,_E. F. Schumacher distinguished between machines that assist the craftsman, and machines that take over the work of the craftsman through this quote of Ananda Coomaraswamy,
“The craftsman himself, can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”5
Machines as destroyers of culture. That’s a powerful image. Large language models (LLMs) are capable of being either the carpet loom, or the power loom. That is, they can assist the writer with her writing, or they can do the writing themselves.
In Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher identifies two different approaches to work. The capitalist economics approach, and the Buddhist economics approach. About the capitalist economics approach he had this to say…
There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.6
and this to say about a Buddhist concept of work…
The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.
There is, then, a distinction to be made about the use of AI. Do we use it to take human beings out of the labor equation, or, do we use it to assist us with the work of being human? It is the difference between a capitalist view of labor and a Buddhist view of labor. I know which I prefer.