Age of perplexity: AI and implications for literature

The OpenAI logo on screen with ChatGPT website

The OpenAI logo on screen with ChatGPT website on January 8, 2023. People are currently obsessed with ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by OpenAI that uses artificial intelligence.

Photo credit: AFP

Modern technology can be mysterious and frightening—a sea monster washed up onshore—twirling, swivelling, and twisting.

Our world is awash with machines, gadgets, and noise. Of phones ringing, laptops humming, cursors blinking, and fingers tapping incessantly on small screens. Of cars and planes and clinking glasses. Of voices—quarrelling, bargaining, coaxing. Like a waterfall—thick and pooling—the onslaught of new technology comes in startling suddenness.

The world seems to be bristling with the static of an oncoming technological storm, like a cloud brooding over the land—rain lashing down angrily. It used to be that holding a phone brought both peace and turbulent joy, almost like giddiness—the world within one’s grasp. That is no longer enough. There is newer technology.

People are currently obsessed with ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer), a chatbot developed by OpenAI that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI). ChatGPT has accelerated conversations about the implications of AI—from hopeful to increasingly frantic.

ChatGPT has been lauded for its comprehensive responses and eloquent answers across many knowledge domains (though its uneven factual accuracy is still in doubt). It was received with growing panic by companies fearing for their business models and people wondering how it would impact what they do daily.

ChatGPT will especially have serious implications on the work done by creatives. It can not only mimic human conversations but also write poems, song lyrics, teleplays, fairy tales, essays and much more.

I asked ChatGPT to write a love poem and it came up with beautiful verses: “Love, oh love, you fickle friend/You lift us up/then bring the end. You tease and tempt us with your charms/Then leave us broken in your arms… The memories linger like a dream/ Of what could be, but never seem/ To come to pass, to stay for long/ And now we're left to mourn and long”.

For a computer-generated poem, this is impressive. And it’s frightening that a machine can do that. It reminds one of the chilling and dystopian novel, 1984, by George Orwell, in which technology is unleashed in a terrifying way in a fictional country called Oceania.

Technology absorption

In Oceania, just like in our time, absorption into the technology of the day took people from their time and space, sending them drifting into another realm—a utopian world that shielded them from the harsh realities of the day. However, as the people got engrossed in technology, Oceania’s government had its own shady machinations. Like a rattled serpent baring a forked tongue, every technology seems to have a dark side—casting long shadows. 

Indeed, technology can get out of control, like a marauding bull on a rampage. That’s what happens in Oceania, a place caught in a technological apocalypse in which Big Brother (the government or the ruling party) is always listening in using high-tech devices that can eavesdrop on people’s homes.

This signalled the end of privacy. This is very familiar in our modern times in a world of big data where companies (especially online) have accumulated huge amounts of personal information for targeted advertising. Like in Oceania, this threatens an individual’s privacy.

There is also endless war in Oceania. There are three super states in the world and, at any one time, two states are allied and fighting against one super state. It’s almost like what’s happening in the war between Russia and Ukraine—two states are fighting but there are other allied countries fighting a proxy war supporting either side by supplying weapons, intelligence, or other help.

The scariest resemblances between our current world and Oceania are fake news and disinformation. The state of Oceania insisted that reality is malleable (not absolute) and “whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth.” Regardless of facts, “the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”

The narrator in 1984, Winston Smith, stresses that the Party (state) “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears”. This was like a prophecy of this time of “post-truth” and “alternative facts”. Politicians insist on their version of “truth” even if it’s clearly against the evidence we are collecting with our eyes and ears. The economy could be going downhill but politicians will give us “alternative facts”—that the economy is doing very well! We see this every day. It’s astonishing how George Orwell prophesied all this in his novel.

Like in Orwell’s novel, technology (from ChatGPT to yet-to-be-discovered innovations) will have serious consequences. Literature is now on a collision course with more advanced artificial intelligence technology although it has already been impacted by various technologies.

With new technologies in writing poetry and prose, writers have a major challenge. The growth of AI technologies could lead to job losses if writers can be replaced in certain areas. Already, the use of technology has eliminated the use of human actors in certain movies through animation.

 This could happen to writers. Obviously, technology can’t really replace everything a good creative writer can do. However, writers must up their game and, in fact, everyone else should do the same. Artificial intelligence is coming for everyone’s job.