Sean Michaels on Collaborative Writing With AI

From a story on headlined “Sean Michaels on collaborating with AI”

In 2019, I began writing a novel with generative AI. ChatGPT was still three years away from release, but there were backdoor methods for accessing GPT-2, an early version of the technology that undergirds it. I had been inspired by the story of Marianne Moore, the great becaped and tricorned poet, who—at age 67—agreed to work with Ford to try to name their new car. (“Utopian Turtletop,” she proposed. “Mongoose Civique.” They went with Edsel.)

In my book, a 75-year-old poet (with cape and tricorne hat) travels to California and spends seven days working with a sentient (?) AI named Charlotte. At the time, I imagined it would take place in the future.

Just as my fictional poet was working with Charlotte, I realized, the new book could itself be “infiltrated” by AI: here and there, indicated by subtle formatting choices, I would integrate computer-generated text. Some of it would be bland, other parts ungainly, but also, I hoped, there would be places where modern algorithms’ curious choices might trouble the reader’s certainties.

In 2023, people’s experience with high-quality Large Language Models is mainly through chat apps, where the visitor is plunged into dialogue with a cheerful (albeit censorious) AI character. That interlocutor—the dumb/smart/maddening bot inside ChatGPT or Bing—is actually just a construct: as you might know, the core software is only interested in predicting the next word in a string.

OpenAI has worked hard to refine and constrain ChatGPT’s tone; without those constraints, the technology has a surprisingly nimble grasp or prose style. Just as image generators like Midjourney can capture aspects of Wes Anderson’s visual aesthetic, or imagine Jodorowsky’s Tron, even 2019-era text generators could complete my sentences — or expose my stylistic quirks — with unsettling ability.

The first time the AI infiltrates the novel is on page 9, just after my protagonist, Marian, arrives at the headquarters of the Big Tech company that has commissioned her.

… I found myself reflecting on the Company’s lack of a front door. Meaning they were never closed, not ever, not on Christmas Day or at two a.m. or the morning after their annual staff party. At all hours they were open, available, like the Company’s website or their software, their servers twinkling in a vault.

The very first time I wrote those lines, I used “thrumming” to describe the servers. Thrumming! That florid, cringey cliché. What would be better? I wondered. Buzzing? Humming? I tentatively fed several pages of my manuscript into the AI, ending with that sentence—“…like the Company’s website or their software, their servers”—and I hit “Submit.”

“Twinkling.” That was the suggestion. It was different, it was interesting, it was very slightly wrong. Not sonic but visual, evoking stars and Xmas lights—but the server lights might twinkle, sort of? Their lines of flashing LEDs?

I liked it because it was surprising, but also awkward—the kind of choice I didn’t feel like I would make, a human. The sort of word, in its little highlighting box, that might make the reader pause and think, What’s this? Who’s written this? Is it someone else?

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