Uncanny Valley: Don’t Worry About AI Writers

Here’s a quick response to the ‘Are you scared yet, human?’ article that appeared in the Guardian last week. In the news, AI threatens to take writing jobs and our livelihoods. Should I be scared? I decided to see for myself, and tinkered with some AI content generator tools. The results below speak for themselves: don’t worry about AI writers.

Uncanny Valley: Don't Worry About AI Writers
Does this picture creep you out? Good, your brain is working correctly.

Writing seems to suffer from the ‘uncanny valley,’ just like CGI. According to technopedia, the “uncanny valley is a phenomenon that occurs in the human psyche and perception with regards to objects that are human-like, usually robots and images, and determines our reaction towards that object. It is still just a hypothesis, and it is stated to the effect of ‘as an object such as a robot gets more human-like, the response of some observers will become increasingly positive and emphatic, until a point is reached in the robot’s human-likeness beyond which the reactions quickly turn to strong revulsion.'”

In other words, while deep fakes look impressive, they look fake. The uncanny valley is why Moff Tarkin looked life-like, and yet devoid of life in ‘Rogue One.’

The uncanny valley is why – for now, anyway – I don’t worry about AI writers. It creates a permanent chasm between art made by machines and art made by man. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the data together.

The Weird World of AI Blog Tools

Capitalizing on the success of GTP-3 writing popular blog posts, there are AI tools out there to help generate your own content. AI-Writer.com gives you a free trial period, generating entire 7 paragraph articles based on some simple keywords. According to the original architect of the experiment, Liam Porr, ‘he chose the best of several outputs of the AI model and copy-pasted it into his blog with very little editing.’

So content writers are curious. Is this the ‘golden ticket’ of blog writing? What about me? Ethics aside, does it make sense for a scifi writer like me to make use of those tools? I decided to test-drive AI-writer.com to see what it came up with. See for yourself:

Example One – Scifi

Some of the best science fiction films replace our own imaginations and dream of an impossible future, which we will inevitably shape through their own technological advances. Great science fiction films that explore everything from human experience to the future of humanity deliver mind – bending visuals full of mind-blowing ideas, and some are incredibly prescient. Sources: 2

It is rare for an entire film world to be so fully realised, and given the ongoing backlash from Avatar, it would be foolish to bet against Cameron’s many upcoming sequels. It is a story in which science and nature are equal and opposite forces, in which consciousness is transferable and humans are alien invaders, but everything else is a hit film. There is the familiar B-movie quality of the plot, inspired by dancing with wolves. His record, which includes groundbreaking technological leaps beyond anything he’s ever done, from aliens to colorful creatures to Abyss, is nothing more than CJ. Sources: 2

Humanity lives in a fascist and militarist epoch and is attacked by giant alien beetles that live on the other side of the galaxy. Normally in movies, alien visitors come to Earth to blow things up, but in this movie they are not aliens at all. Sources: 0, 2

Example Two – Science Fiction Movies

Science fiction films are more popular than ever, and some of the most popular films about space travel are about war, space war, space exploration and space science fiction. Sources: 5, 9

The importance of these early science fiction films serves as the basis for many of today’s popular sci-fi and fantasy films. The Lost World (1925), was the first dinosaur-oriented science fiction film that came to theaters in the United States, and one of the most popular films of all time. Sources: 6

The film, written by Arthur C. Clarke, was praised for its way of thinking – provocative premise, and it’s hard not to have a Robert Zemeckis film because so much iconography is pressed into its running time. BTTF trumps the rest because there are a lot of them, but it’s shocking that there are so many different versions of the same story and characters in such a short time. Sources: 8, 14

I also discovered a number of sci-fi films that were made before I was born, including things that came after that, like Star Wars and Star Trek, as well as some of the early sci-fi movies from the 1960s and 1970s. The latter said that a Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction film in 1977, and it’s very hard for anyone to make a better film as far as I’m concerned. That feeling still sounds like this: I think there are some great movies, but not all of them science fiction. Sources: 2, 1

The Creepy Result

I specifically left these articles unaltered because I wanted to give you the full effect. As you read them, they feel off almost from the first sentence. By the end of the third paragraph you’re buried by their unnaturalness. They feel foreign, odd. Something’s wrong with them, but what?

Eventually, your brain starts to pick out the problem. These articles are about scifi and yet, not about scifi. They’re disjointed, there’s no connective flow of ideas. The articles only work as an experiment to write as many on-topic words without actually making a point.

AI articles teach an unspoken truth about the written word; something that makes or breaks storytellers. Here it is: Your words have to mean something. You can’t just barf out text on a screen: prose is not a repos of the poser. That’s a job for a spore.

Yes, AI can write words, but they cannot communicate meaning. They cannot empathize with their reader. No AI starts writing by asking the quesiton, “who am I writing to?” For them, there is no question, there is only the topic. No algorithm or machine learning exists yet for machines to receive words and get them, to understand the words, and what the words mean. Does that matter? Of course it does!

Think about it: We champion authors who communicate meaning. They use words and phrases to paint galaxy-sized dioramas inside your mind. William Gibson, for example, writes a novel’s worth of story in a single paragraph. Tom Waits sums up lifetimes of regret in a four-bar harmony. The author’s use of words to put you into their universe? That isn’t something you can program into an algorithm.

That’s why these articles, when first published, had hundreds of people going: ‘these are the Krull of blog posts.’ They aren’t kidding; these blog posts are utterly devoid of any natural human emotion. There’s no story behind the story, no meaning behind the meaning. We read them and reject them almost immediately, just like people did with the original AI-blog post experiment. These creepy result is the uncanny valley in action; this is why I don’t worry about AI writers.

If this is a new topic for you, you can learn learn more about robotics and anthropomorphism here. Be warned: if it feels weird, that’s the uncanny valley at work. This stuff is pure nightmare fuel for anyone who isn’t a sociopath.

Wrapping Up

Long story short: Yes, you have to be a human to tell human stories. I’ve had more than one person ask me whether I’m a real person. The answer is ‘Yes, I’m real. I have the stinky armpits to prove it.’

I hope you find this information useful and insightful. Please feel welcomed to tap into your own humanness in your storytelling.