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Jenifer’s Shelter Island Journal: Me, myself and AI

It may come as a shock to some of you, but I, on occasion, have told an untruth (aka, a lie). Lies of convenience, lies of self-preservation, lies of social expedience, etc., I‘ve told them all, but, to my knowledge, I’ve never committed the literary lie of plagiarism. 

Growing up, I was the poster child for that mid-century modern favorite, the “inferiority complex,” but somehow, amidst my basket case of insecurities, I harbored the notion that maybe I could write based solely on one tiny note my 7th grade English teacher had scribbled in the margin of a little essay I’d written: “You have the makings of a writer.”

Forever after, taking credit for someone else’s writing became a level of dishonesty too low to ever even contemplate.

Back in the 90s, when I was teaching English, and technology was in its toddlerhood, as much as I found that the profligate way it was being applied by humans was effectively turning them into tools of technology rather than the reverse, there was one application of which I made occasional use when I suspected that a student might’ve copied some or all of a writing assignment.

I could just Google a sentence or two and find out if it currently existed on the internet. Handy.

Twenty-five years later, there’s ChatGPT which, according to techtarget.com senior editor, Amanda Hetler, in her article What Is ChatGPT? is “ … an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that uses natural language processing to create human-like conversational dialogue. The language model can respond to questions and compose various written content, including articles, social media posts, essays, code and emails.”

Indeed, it’s already being put to enthusiastic use by everyone from novelists to high school students. Hetler continues: “… ChatGPT uses deep learning, a subset of machine learning, to produce humanlike text through transformer neural networks. The transformer predicts text — including the next word, sentence or paragraph — based on its training data’s typical sequence … training begins with generic data, then moves to more tailored data for a specific task. ChatGPT was trained with online text to learn the human language, and then it used transcripts to learn the basics of conversations.”

I guess the good news is that ChatGPT and its ilk have pretty much served to eradicate “plagiarism” — who needs it? Not that any credit could rightly be given to the actual “author,” anyway, considering that no one “author” can be identified.

In his essay ,“Literature Under the Spell of A.I.,” in the Dec. 27, 2023 New York Times Book Review, A.O. Scott grapples with the question: “What happens to literature when writers embrace A.I. as their muse?” In part, Scott writes, “In a matter of seconds or minutes, untroubled by writer’s block or other neuroses, these spectral prodigies can cough up a cover letter, a detective novel, a sonnet or even a think piece on the literary implications of artificial intelligence …[and] some have embraced A.I. as the latest iteration of an ancient literary conceit: the fantasy of a co-author, a confidant, a muse — an extra intelligence, a supplemental mental database. Poets and novelists once turned to séances, Ouija boards and automatic writing for inspiration. Now they can summon a chatbot to their laptops.”

I suppose “prayer” could be included as another of those analog “supplemental databases” that poets and novelists used to turn to (listen up, Father Peter, it’s getting “metaphysical” in here). But now, “divine inspiration” seems to have become an obsolete term, unless of course, the God of Technology, which so many of us have been worshiping, decides to elbow out a few of those nine Muses  — you know the ones quora.com tells us are the “daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus [who] in old Greek times, were believed to be the sources of inspiration of all arts and knowledge, and called on by authors down the ages  to imbue their words with mythical strength.”

In his essay, Scott writes of Sheila Heti’s short story “According to Alice,” published in The New Yorker in November 2023. The text consists of one side of a conversation between Heti and Alice, a “customizable chatbot on the Chai A.I. platform. Alice answers questions about religion, family, memory, and other things that she does not, strictly speaking, possess. She has no body, no consciousness, no reservoir of experiences to draw upon, and no identity outside the parameters that Heti and the engineers have programmed for her, including her gender … what she does have is a language that is capable — because it is human language — of evoking all that human baggage in startling, sometimes surreal ways. ‘Religion gives meaning to life!’ she declares. ‘That’s why I’m writing the Bible.’”

I wonder what my teacher meant by “… the makings of a writer?”