When I first heard about the AI program, ChatGPT, I didn’t think too much of it. You type in a question, and it gives you an answer. You give it commands and it responds in kind. I assumed it would be a hyped-up program that would be trendy for a bit then fizzle out, like the AI profile pics I had been seeing. I was wrong, as I often have been about these kind of things (I didn’t think Facebook or Netflix would last very long). Then I saw people posting whole essays written by the program. During a conversation with my brother-in-law, I suddenly saw the potential for writers to use this as a creative new tool. I could write a book much faster. I put that thought on the backburner. Maybe it would be a project for a rainy day. But I knew that this program wasn’t going to fizzle out. Then shortly before the start of the new year, Mallory Smart tweeted that she would be releasing a human/AI collaboration book on New Year’s Eve. My first thought was that the literary world is about to change. My second thought was, I need to talk to Mallory about this.
What was the genesis for The Writer?
It’s so sad, the immediate thing my mind thought of when I saw this question was the movie, Terminator Genisys because it’s kind of related to the underlying themes of THE WRITER and I was just talking to a friend about how horrible it is.
To answer the question seriously and honestly: an argument. Anyone who really knows me would be surprised that I wrote this. I’m all about analog. I love using typewriters. I prefer film cameras to iPhones. I love records to an unhealthy level. BUT my fiance is very into tech which makes us a weird but fun match. We were just driving around and he started telling me about it and I got pissed off. Like most writers I imagine, I was anxious about the idea that something I love so much could possibly be taken from me and I also was insanely dismissive of it. Strangely that’s what got me into actually checking it out. I started just asking it random questions and then moved on to see if it could even write a story in a way that sounded human. One of the stories I asked it to tell me was about Jeffrey Dahmer and it actually made me laugh out loud. I didn’t include that story in the collection because it was pretty dark but I loved it. From there it just felt worth showing people. I didn’t want to show only AI-generated stories because they would be way too dry and easy to dismiss. So I came up with the idea of writing my own short stories, coming up with amusing prompts for the AI, and then giving extra personality to some of the stories that the AI did on its own. That way people could see all possibilities when it comes to AI and art. I feel the best way to think of it right now is as a tool, not a competitor.
How long did it take you to write The Writer? Was there much editing?
When I finally committed to writing THE WRITER, I already had 3 of the stories done. This probably took only 3 hours. The next morning I wrote out a series of story ideas that I thought would be cool to work with. Some I would write completely myself and others were just prompts for ChatGPT. I immediately wanted to get a jump on it but the servers kept getting flooded because of all of the hype it was getting on social media. Students working on Finals might have also been a factor. So I had to wait for a time when I thought there would be the least amount of people on it per day. I’d usually be able to get on around midnight. Waiting for the servers to be unclogged, dealing with the holidays, and my own actual writing speed are the only things that slowed it down. In the end, I’d say I wrote it in a little under two weeks. I edited only a little bit. Not much. I wanted to leave some mistakes in the AI-written stories so people could see that it wasn’t going to take over the world quite yet. I had two people read it before I decided it was done and as you probably know by now, it’s a very quick read.
What was the “artistic struggle” or learning curve in this collaboration?
It took me maybe a few hours to really understand how to use it but after that, it was all about reworking the phrasing of certain prompts so the AI could actually create something coherent. I learned the most from the first two prompts I gave it. The first two prompts I kept using were for Jeffrey Dahmer and then the “Hipster Serial Killer.” At that point, I wasn’t committed to writing a collection. I was testing the program to see just how much it could actually do. For Dahmer, it was pretty simple. I wanted to see if it could take a real person and create a fictional story about them while actually using facts about them, and it shockingly did. Then with the “Hipster Serial Killer,” it was about learning whether it could take abstract concepts like that and form a narrative. I should explain that when I say “kept using” is because I kept asking ChatGPT in different ways to tell me the stories and also there’s an option to “regenerate” a response. You don’t change the prompt when you want to regenerate the response. Instead, it looks at your question again and answers it in a different way. Sometimes the answers were almost identical. Other times it would churn out a story with a completely different idea which was exciting. So I would occasionally hit that a few times when working on other stories so I could see all angles that it could come up with. The only snag I hit in the process was learning that the program has certain “safeguards” that won’t allow it to respond to certain prompts which is probably good in certain regards.
What was the average number of prompts you gave Chat GPT per story?
I just went back and counted the number of prompts I came up with after Dahmer and the “Hipster Serial Killer” and see I created 36. I didn’t get a chance to use some of them because it was allowed to not respond to certain things. I also ended up mashing together prompts and writing many variations. If asked how many prompts I used considering all of that, I think we’d come close to 90.
In between the stories are captions that read like tabloid headlines. Were these also written by the AI? What was the inspiration for including these?
Well along with the stories, I won’t say who came up with what. But your safest bet with most of the headlines would be me. Sometimes I’d ask AI if it could make mine funnier though. I actually write everyday and before starting, I write my own version of a “Florida Man” headline to make myself laugh. In THE WRITER, they were created to give readers a bit of a fun breather between stories so they could forget for a second about the whole AI/human conundrum.
Would you ever attempt to write an AI collaboration novel?
Not likely. I did see that someone on Reddit has completed one though. Think it’s over 300 pages. There are a few authors out there using it to help with outlining their novels as well. The idea of using AI for an entire novel sounds kind of exhausting to me though. At the moment ChatGPT only allows brief responses and even in those you need to comb through them to make sure there are no inconsistencies and such. In the intro, I explain how in certain stories it would change the gender, name, or tone. In the confines of a short story, those are easy to fix. In a novel, you’d have to be constantly on top of it. But who knows? I didn’t think I’d attempt this but here we are.
If you were to give your AI collaborator a name what would it be?
I actually allowed it to name itself and that’s the name of the book: THE WRITER. I like how it came up with a name that wasn’t human and that it was in all caps. It makes it sound like a device out of a H.G. Wells novel. As I answer this I am immediately thinking of the movie I, Robot though, and how the creator of the robots gave the two pivotal robots, human names: Sonny and VIKI. Sonny wasn’t bound by the Three Laws and VIKI evolved beyond them. It’s almost like by giving them human attributes like a name that Elon Musk wouldn’t name his kid, we’d be giving them the power to become more than just a device. That being said, this is how it responds if you just ask “What’s your name?” with no context: I am Assistant, a large language model trained by OpenAI. I don’t have a personal name, but you can call me whatever you like.
Do you consider all AI art; books, paintings, etc. to be a collaboration? Who do you think should own the copyright of that, the human or the AI corporation?
At this point, definitely. It scrapes everything it knows off of the internet or takes what we teach it and then creates what we ask it to. As for copyrights? That is a very hard thing for me to answer because there isn’t any real precedent on it. For THE WRITER, I did a large amount of the work and I’m not just talking about the stories I wrote myself. In the future, this will definitely need to be addressed since it’s becoming more common, but for now, I think it belongs to the creator more than anything. I’d say giving the AI corporation copyrights to anything that was created by a human being who just used their program, would be similar to giving copyrights to Nikon to any picture taken by a photographer who used that camera. Eventually, maybe these corporations will license out the usage of their programs. Who knows?
Is AI art simply another form of mass production leading to more consumerism?
It could definitely become that but I don’t see it that way right now.
Humans already interact with AI through phone messaging systems, automated website chat boxes, and self-driving cars. Do you think as AI continues to evolve it will become more of a benefit or a hindrance to humanity?
That’s a deep question that some of the most respected writers and scientists can’t even seem to answer. Because it’s so easy to use and so accessible, I worry that people are too dependent on technology. We’re better at finding information than remembering it, these days. The introduction of AI has a very heavy probability of making that problem even worse. In theory, AI could have the ability to do amazing things to benefit humanity or it could take us over like Skynet. It’s all about balance. I’m not too pessimistic, but I do think that there needs to be intervention and some form of regulation soon.
Do you think the rise in AI art will threaten the work of living artists?
Not at all. Writers and artists have adapted to every innovation that has been thrown at us so far. This is just a new thing to adapt to. You can either use it or do things the way you always have. To me, it’s just something else that’s out there.
Do you think more writers/artists will be willing to create AI art to increase their own portfolio? And would it be unethical for an artist to take full credit for an AI collaboration or not admit that the work was an AI collaboration?
I don’t think it would be ethical to claim full credit. That’s why I made sure the first thing people knew about THE WRITER was that it’s a collaboration. People will definitely use it to pad their portfolios though and a lot of them will just take sole credit. It’ll be hard to call them out on it too because the AI is already really good at churning things out when prompted. It’s also not plagiarism and can’t be detected by any plagiarism software.
Do you have a favorite movie about AI?
Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
If The Writer was to be adapted into a film who would you want to direct it?
I’d actually want to be the one to direct it, but if not me…maybe Ridley Scott or James Cameron. For the fuck of it I’m also gonna say that Bobby Miller could direct it too.
Do you think there will be an uprising of robots like in the Terminator or simply a rise in AI that rules over humanity through the technology already in place like in Eagle Eye? And do you welcome our future overlords?
I’ve seen Eagle Eye but don’t remember it or feel like looking it up. I think it’s the one with Shia LaBeouf? If it’s about AI rising from technology that we already have, then that is definitely a higher probability than Skynet gaining awareness and kickstarting Judgement Day. I think the 3rd Terminator movie might’ve been more similar to the first idea though. That the technology would adapt regardless of intervention from Sarah Connor and Skynet didn’t need to be born from one corporation. It could be born from an AI hivemind that is already in all of our phones and computers. Regardless, all of those sound like very fun and amusing ideas. I don’t think it would be like that though. If we intervene now, then AI can just remain a tool for humanity. But If we get too hyped on it and throw caution to the wind, I’m hoping for an uprising that’s more similar to the one in I, Robot. Always more partial to a benevolent overlord. I don’t welcome them but I know I’m useless to all parties when it comes to a fight lol.
If you could read an AI novel in the style of any author, which author would you choose?
Miranda July. It would be weird and amusing as hell.
Do you think you will make a sequel to The Writer?
If enough people like it then I’ll consider it. There are a lot of fun directions I’m thinking I can take it in.
Do you consider this book to be science fiction?
I’m terrible at genres but certain stories within it are definitely sci-fi. So I’ll go with yes. The collection in general could be considered science fiction.
Mallory Smart is a Chicago-based writer, editor-in-chief of Maudlin House, and doer of many other things.
Benjamin Scott is a Midwest writer and interviewer, who’s published in X-R-A-Y Lit Mag and Triangle House.