There is a lot of buzz going around this week about ChatBot, an artificial intelligence tool that is available to all who want to beta test it right now. You just have to log in and prove you are a human. Then put your question in a window and see what comes back. Many people are worried that bots will be able to write term papers and articles. What will this mean to people who write for a living?
A Writer Meets Chatbot
Some writers fear they are about to be replaced by machines that can manage grammar and spelling better than they can and perhaps frame ideas much quicker than they can. To understand how much I need to be worried about being replaced, I decided to try chatbot out with this request,
Me: “Tell me how chatbot will change writing.”
Chatbot: “Chatbots are computer programs designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet. They can be used to answer questions, provide customer service, or even just to have a casual conversation with users. In terms of how chatbots may change writing, there are a few potential ways this could happen:
1. Chatbots may encourage a more concise and to-the-point style of writing, as they are designed to provide quick and accurate responses to user inquiries. This could lead to a shift away from more traditional, lengthy writing styles.
2. Chatbots may also change the way that people interact with written content, as users may become more accustomed to receiving information in a conversational format. This could lead to a greater emphasis on dialogue and conversation in writing.
3. Chatbots may also impact the way that businesses and organizations communicate with their customers or clients. For example, chatbots could be used to handle frequently asked questions or to provide information about products and services in a more personalized and efficient way.
Overall, chatbots may change writing by promoting a more efficient and interactive style of communication. However, it’s important to note that chatbots are not a replacement for human writers, and the role of traditional writing will likely continue to be important in many contexts.”
That’s an artificial intelligence point of view.
What’s a Human Point of View?
First, there are very few people who like writing for itself. For most of the people I work with, writing is a means to an end, often a somewhat painful means. We know we have something to say, but all sorts of inner voices tell us we can’t really do it.
What if the process for creating a first draft becomes explaining an idea to a bot and asking it to put the idea in clear words?
A lot of writing is every day stuff that we humans express indirectly or ambiguously. It may be that we can send each other clearer notes with a chatbot as an intermediary.
Perhaps as the chatbot above suggests, it could help us write more concisely and to the point. For example, I made this follow-on request:
Me: “Could you say this in fewer words?”
Chatbot: “Chatbots are computer programs that simulate conversation with humans and can be used for customer service, answering questions, and having casual conversations. They may change writing by encouraging concise and efficient communication, promoting a conversational style, and impacting the way businesses communicate with customers. However, they are not a replacement for human writers.”
But there may be limits.
Me: “Could you add a story to that?”
Chatbot: “An error occurred. If this issue persists please contact us through our help center at help.openai.com.”
I don’t know whether I had delayed too long or if it just didn’t like being asked for a story. I asked twice, very politely, with the same results.
As I thought over chatbots and writing, I remembered another machine transformation that occurred over my lifetime. When my grandmother was young, she made her own clothes, first with needle and thread and then with a treadle sewing machine. My mother had an electric sewing machine. In the required home economics course in junior high school, I learned how to make my own clothes. That meant laying patterns on fabric lined up carefully with the grain, cutting out the pieces, and then putting them together. I still have the sewing machine I bought after college, which I mostly use for mending. Knowing the anatomy of clothes helps a lot with mending effectively.
My daughter doesn’t even know how to use a sewing machine, probably is less adept at mending, and has never made her own clothes.
But my daughter has embarked on custom dress making. As a gift one year, she sent me to a website where I chose a style, selected a fabric, and entered my measurements. The dress arrived in the mail a week or so later.
Will there be a similar evolution in which machines take over the tedium of writing just as sewing machines took over the tedium of hand sewing?
An Experiment Using a ChatBot to Write on a Serious Topic
One of the people in my writers’ workshops conducted an experiment last week. He asked the chatbot, “How should we prepare for the death of someone close to us?” When he got his first results, he made some follow-up requests, such as “Please make it more emotional.”
Then he submitted his piece to the writers’ group, openly identifying it as something he had cobbled together out of paragraphs produced by chatbot.
My response was mixed. The piece felt rather flat and impersonal. It didn’t have the writer’s personality in it, and there were no stories. The central concept in the piece was that we practice for a loss the way a pilot practices in a flight simulator. I thought I could make better suggestions for someone for with a family death imminent.
But there were no grammatical twinkies, other than some pronoun inconsistencies, such as switching from you to we in mid paragraph.
Side comment: The readability plugin on my web site complained that I had too many passive sentences. Half of them are in chatbot’s writing.
What comes next for writers?
Perhaps writing in a world of chatbots will be like getting dressed for an occasion. We don’t create our clothes from scratch. But we do go to the closet with an idea of how we want to look and why. We select from the options there, perhaps combining them in new ways as we think about the people we’ll see and how we want to appear.
If we choose to write with chatbots, I expect we will still need to select our own ideas to expound. Perhaps we will give the machine very rough drafts and ask it to fill out certain sections. Perhaps we will give it later drafts to edit for spelling, wording, grammar, concision, and even style.
I suggest that we approach the world of chatbots writing with a spirit of flexibility, remembering what we want to accomplish and not letting our egos be unduly daunted that chatbots can do some of the steps better than we can.
My sewing machine sews a stronger seam than I do by hand.
In the meantime, if you want to get better at the human side of writing, I can’t think of a better next step than trying out the experiments in Sit Write Share. There is still work for humans to do capturing their ideas and experience.