A few thoughts on generative fiction


There’s no doubt the most interesting thing happening in the world of fiction writing is the development of AI tools like Chat GPT that are capable of writing readable fiction. (“Readable” is admittedly a low bar—the phone book is readable—but by this I mean the text can keep readers’ eyes on the page, at least for a while, unlike the total gibberish AI used to produce.

The emergence of this tech has generated a lot of hot emotions. Some writers feel AI will do to them what the automobile did to horse-drawn carriages. Others argue it’s a wonderful tool that will empower the underprivileged. I’m going to stay out of these debates for now, simply because tackling them would require at least another thousand words. (I will state that my sympathies are more pro-AI than against.)

What I want to opine on is a specific sub-topic related to the larger issue. I often see people say AI is “only copying” (or stealing) from human artists. And, if you understand how machine learning powered AI works, that’s a fair assessment. AI has to be trained on existing libraries of data e.g. works of fiction for AI writing, or art collections for the AI art created by software tools like MidJourney. (While AI music isn’t yet mainstream, I believe it will become more popular in the near future.) AI is not inherently creative. It needs to base its efforts on what came before.

The larger argument being made is that, since AI is assembling a pastiche of elements created by people, the originators of those elements are owed something.

Now, I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of that argument, like whether humans creators (or their estates) are actually owed monetary recompense, or how such payouts would be handled. However, I will point out that much of human creativity is not wholly original; rather, it involves copying

Most of my artistic experience is in playing music, specifically jazz guitar. In that realm, players freely acknowledge learning the licks of other musicians and using them in their own improvisations. (Just the other day, I snatched part of the main melody of “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You” and used it in a solo over “All of Me.”) Chord changes and rhythms are recycled all the time. In western music we have twelve tones and a limited number of rhythmic combinations—it would be impossible for composers to be “original” forever. (The one aspect of music still open to development is that of timbre—the sound of the instruments, or more often in the modern contexts, synthesizer patches, used. The difference between a C# note played on tuba versus a crazy dubstep synth patch is that of timbre.)

In textual writing, copying is also a thing. I can’t get through a chapter of any book I’m reading without copying down words or phrases that pique my interest. I don’t reuse them in my own work verbatim; I shift things around a bit. So “…causing her fine arm hairs to harden” (an actual example from the book Sexy Leper by Chad Stroup) might become “the fine hairs on his neck stiffened” (not an actual example, though I’m sure I used something like that somewhere.) And all writers do variations of this.

And with visual arts, we see similar trends. Artists copy each other’s style or arrangement of elements on a canvas. Check out this page of comic book “swipes”—instances where an artist either traced over or derived a design from existing art. (TBH, I find some of the examples on that page unconvincing, but plenty are obvious rip-offs.)

Is this sort of “swiping”—be it in visual arts, music or writing—ethical? There are degrees here; I think you have to judge on a case by case basis, and not everyone will agree. But there’s no denying that it happens. And it’s not going away.

We’ need to acknowledge at least this: AI does steal and copy. But so do humans.

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