ChatGPT, Helplessness, and the Future of the Human Race - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
ChatGPT, Helplessness, and the Future of the Human Race

There are a number of books out there on why their authors took up the scribbling trade — and I’ve read a couple over the years — but the one that I most look forward to reading is Why I Write by ChatGPT. When that book comes out, which could be any day now, I hope that I will have the opportunity to review it. Being a writer myself, I have always been curious about what motivates other writers to write.

Just kidding? Well, not entirely.

After ChatGPT was released, I quickly learned that in the eyes of a large part of the public, I had somehow been thrust, along with all other writers around the world, into the same community as machines. An old friend called and breathlessly told me that he was very impressed by the fact that ChatGPT was able to produce a short story that in every way was indistinguishable from the style of Ernest Hemingway. Was I not impressed? Could I do that? Funny thing, it happens that when I was in high school, I once did much the same thing with that self-same author. I did it for a creative writing assignment in English class, and my teacher, Mr. Koyama, was both amused and impressed. He told me that if I kept it up, I would win the Nobel Prize in literature. That’s the sort of thing you do when you’re young — you emulate other voices while trying to find your own. After you’re found it, there’s no point.

It is the computer’s ability to imitate things that has convinced people to think of it as intelligent.

How difficult was it for me to do that? At the time, I was immersed in Hemingway’s writing and had developed an ear for how it worked, so, as I recall, it wasn’t that hard to do. If you happen to have a knack for writing, once you’ve decided on a plot, it’s pretty easy. It’s much like making a cup of instant coffee — just add water and stir. 

But it isn’t always that way. Even for accomplished writers, the finished product does not always come easily. As you read these words, you do not know whether they were composed effortlessly or with great difficulty. But if you knew that they were written by ChatGPT, you would instantly know that the process had nothing to do with exertion. Computers don’t work — they process; they run. When you take in something that is easily read, you do not know, and may not even care, whether it was easy or difficult for the author to produce. The trick for the author, if you want to call it that, is to make it look easy. 

The ability to write well and with ease may be a gift for some writers, but, for many — even some great writers — it is an art that must be painfully mastered. George Orwell’s sister once remarked that early in his career he groaned while working at his desk. And on one occasion, when asked by an ardent admirer what it took to produce his work, W. Somerset Maugham replied that it was all about taking pains. Many writers are cursed with one of the most merciless illnesses known to mankind: the disease of perfectionism, which can tie a person into knots forever and ever and, incidentally, also make that person very difficult to live with. For this reason, some writers choose to deprecate their art, as does the fictional writer E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer, in which the master describes as his modus operandi the agony of incessantly “turning a sentence.” Many writers have this sort of love-hate relationship with their work. 

Some writers work for a paycheck, but innumerable others do not. A late friend of the generation previous to my own had a day job as a tailor. In Paris after World War II, he belonged to a circle of writers — all of whom had day jobs in trades such as his own — who bicycled out into the countryside to picnic and talk about their work. I remember how he sometimes lamented to me about a lost manuscript that he was unable to reconstruct. There are all sorts of writer’s laments out there, some of which have led to tragedy. John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the magnificent picaresque novel A Confederacy of Dunces, purportedly killed himself because he could not find a publisher. Ernest Hemingway is said to have done the same when he found that he could no longer write.

For humans, the struggle is what the process of writing is all about, and the process is often at least as important as, perhaps even more important than, the final product. In fact, when the process is over, if it has indeed been agonizing, all that the author wants to do is get rid of it, send it away, get it finally out of sight so as to forget about it. Michael Crichton, who produced his many books in bursts of manic activity, likened the process of doing so to having an illness one was desperately trying to get over.

It is the computer’s ability to imitate things that has convinced people to think of it as intelligent.

But this is not a universal view of computers. Some are predicting that when they get smart enough, they will want to kill us. This is master-race thinking: I am smarter than you; therefore, I want to kill you. But why would they? It’s not as if we were competing with them for the necessities of life, food, water, fuel, natural resources, the great outdoors. If they are indeed smarter than us, they might also be kindly and want to help us. They might think of us as pets and keep us around as companions and playmates. And if computing machines do in fact decide to completely destroy the human race, at least no one will be there to lament our demise or to ask why we were so stupid as to allow them to do so.

I recently heard that a cousin of mine, an undergraduate, used ChatGPT to write a term paper for him. When his grandmother heard about this, she was appalled and reproached him for doing so. His rejoinder was that not only was there nothing wrong with doing so, but also the school system would have to adjust to allow this practice. Poor boomer grandma — she did not see this coming. But both parts of his response have been in the works for some time now; they are of a piece with grade inflation, social promotion, and participation trophies.

When I was an undergraduate, I used to take summer jobs as a construction worker to help pay for my schooling. The first two weeks were the most difficult; I would come home exhausted and with muscles aching. But after that, I was hardened to the work and after supper would go hang out with my girlfriend or rehearse a play for which I had auditioned and got a meaty part.

The nature of honest work is that it isn’t always easy, and its dignity comes in part from precisely that fact. It isn’t just about getting the paycheck, which is, of course, very important in making one feel self-sufficient and independent. It’s also about struggle and the mastery that comes with it.

Those who are hyping the advance of AI say that it will be a boon to humanity, that it will have as great an impact as the advent of electrification. But these predictions are rather short on detail. One can see how AI will be useful for judicious work by scientists, since it can do computations in minutes that take humans days, weeks, months, or even years to complete. But at the present moment, it is for the most part enabling students like my cousin, who will soon bring their laziness and incompetence to the workplace and still expect to be well compensated just for showing up. One may look for, but cannot easily find, the life skills that such students are developing to compensate for the ones that they are willfully discarding.

In the first volume of his biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert Caro describes how the future president got his start in politics by helping to bring electrification to rural areas. Traveling through those areas, one could see women doing laundry bent over scrub boards. This was time-consuming, back-breaking work, and, when electrification brought washing machines, the technology spared their bodies and freed them for other activities. The woman who was thus liberated was already a strong and resourceful woman — we know this from the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” — and might use the now-available time and energy to start raising chickens, thereby contributing an extra source of income for the family.

There are millions of examples like this. Historically, a great many technological advances have enhanced human life. Computers can also function this way, but they can also do the opposite.

Some people are concerned because the security state is using AI to surveille and, thereby, control the people. We don’t yet know where ChatGPT is leading us — but that place is not necessarily slavery; it might be something worse. Slaves have skills, sometimes on a very high level, and they also have strength and the ability to rebel and, sometimes, escape their bondage.

There is a worse place than slavery, and that place is where, with the assistance and encouragement of our friend ChatGPT, we seem to be heading. That place is called helplessness.


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