Will artificial intelligence spell the end for the written word?

ChatGPT, an AI chatbot, is raising concerns that students could use it to write assignments and writers may employ it to help them pen novels

The rise of language tools such as ChatGPT has raised questions over the future of traditional media and literature. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

Can you imagine a world without journalists, authors and screenwriters?

Some may not lament the gradual extinction of newspaper scribblers, but wouldn’t civilisation suffer from the absence of wordsmiths able to pen a new bestseller or big-screen blockbuster?

Thanks to the wonders of artificial intelligence and its growing ability to produce prose and even poetry, perhaps few would even notice if these roles disappeared.

One such technology, ChatGPT, a “chatbot” released in its latest iteration in November by a San Francisco organisation called OpenAI, has been ruffling feathers in the education sector because of concerns that pupils and students could turn to it when completing assignments.

In December a student at a university in the US was reportedly caught using ChatGPT to help write an essay.

Advancing technology tests academics

Indicating the levels of concern raised by the technology, access to ChatGPT on networked devices has been blocked by New York City Department of Education.

According to Mark Lee, professor of artificial intelligence in the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham in the UK, ChatGPT and similar technology from other companies do create concerns regarding university assessments.

He said ChatGPT was already capable of producing exam answers comparable to those from students, making “open-book” exams more problematic because there was “nothing stopping someone from acing an exam using this technology”.

“You would have to be very careful about how you are designing your questions to be testing real human knowledge as opposed to AI,” he said.

“I think this is the final push to force universities to take exams seriously and to go back to the kind of old-school exams in sports halls.”

AI also creates issues about the intellectual skills that will be needed in future. Before calculators, Prof Lee noted, mental arithmetic was valued, but this is less the case now.

“This is going to change how we work,” Prof Lee said. “A good university assessment is one that tests the skills that are required in the workplace.

“We have to see how these technologies change how we do work, and I think universities need to follow in terms of what skills we develop in students.”

Related to this, there are concerns among some analysts about how technology may affect the cognitive development of students.

“Working on research essays inherently enhances analytical, critical thinking, communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills — major differentiators that should never be compromised under any circumstances,” said Adnan Bashir, a technology commentator and senior manager for corporate communications at Hansen Technologies, a global software company.

“I am sure many parents, as well as students, would not be keen on simply cutting corners and taking shortcuts, with these behavioural traits at stake.”

Rise of the cyber ghost writer

The likes of ChatGPT may find increasing use in journalism, following several years in which AI has been employed to write basic news reports.

United Robots, a Swedish company that provides AI capability, proudly boasts that, since 2015, more than four million articles have been delivered to 100 news sites in several languages with its technology. Later applications of AI could involve more complex pieces.

“It might be writing biographies or obituaries,” Prof Lee said. “It might be writing contextual information around a news piece.”

As well as potentially making some journalism roles redundant, ChatGPT could provide a cheaper way of producing press releases and other material for the communications sectors.

People who earn a crust reading aloud may face upheaval too. It was reported this month, January 2023, that Apple had launched audiobooks narrated by AI, while other companies such as Amazon are looking at the same market.

But AI-powered chatbots are not simply job destroyers. There are “manifold” positives from generative AI programmes such as ChatGPT, said Mr Bashir.

“The first one that naturally comes to mind is customer experience and the ability for an enterprise to handle massive volumes of incoming service queries,” he said.

Prof Lee sees benefits in terms of, for example, the summarisation of scientific findings and fact checking. And while AI can generate fake news, it can also detect it.

There are limits to what written content AI is currently capable of creating. For creative endeavours, such as screenwriting, writing a novel, a poem or a song, or crafting an advertising tagline, Mr Bashir said there was “no substitute for context, subtext, nuance, empathy and cultural cognisance”.

These all, he said, require real-time engagement, not just learning.

No substitute for human creativity

“It is not very easy for AI to supplant what human workers uniquely bring to the table in some of these niche areas,” he said.

“ChatGPT’s own user disclaimer openly states that the programme is prone to bias and, furthermore, may not be familiar with world events post-2021.”

People looking to write the next big television hit drama or create a prize-winning advertising campaign “can’t simply dial it in with AI”, Mr Bashir said.

The likes of ChatGPT are best used “to augment one’s own output”, with people acting in a supervisory capacity.

“For example, a novelist hitting a brick wall in the course of plot narration might find it helpful to leverage ChatGPT in certain sections,” Mr Bashir said.

Numerous blockbuster authors have, in the later phases of their careers, come up with plotlines and turned to co-authors to do the hard task of writing up their novels. Perhaps, in the future, big-name authors will instead team up with an AI programme.

This is not as unlikely as it might seem. In 2016, a novel called The Day A Computer Writes A Novel, crafted in part by AI, made it past the first round of judging for a literary prize in Japan. Since then, AI capabilities have moved on considerably.

“Artistic greats such as Neil Gaiman, Kazuo Ishiguro and Lin-Manuel Miranda aren’t created via ChatGPT,” Mr Bashir said, referring to two celebrated British novelists and a successful American author, songwriter, playwright and actor.

“This is not to say that these capabilities won’t be possible someday and that artists shouldn’t be wary about what the future might hold.”

Updated: January 21, 2023, 10:56 AM