This is an entire posting elaborating on a comment I made over at pharyngula, regarding whether AI “creativity” poses a problem for great artists.
It’s tempting to say that a Caravaggio or Da Vinci has nothing to fear from an AI like midjourney, or a genius pundit like Jordan Peterson is not threatened by chatGPT. The problem, however, is deeper than that: if a million monkeys occasionally type out a screenplay for Romeo and Juliet they are not outputting the quality of Shakespeare, but they might overwhelm Shakespeare’s voice in the public arena. You don’t have to be better than Shakespeare, but what if you’re merely adequate and are able to bump your performance a few levels by using AI? Our problem, in other words, is not at the high end of the spectrum, it’s solidly in the middle. This posting will have some large blocks of text to illustrate, I apologize, but it’s necessary. In order to understand, please wade through them. I think you’ll find it thought-provoking, at least.
Let’s start with the end of a conversation with ChatGPT:
By the way, you have to love how ChatGPT accidentally(?) homes in on the crux of the issue: John Ringo is a “prolific and successful author” but ChatGPT did not say Ringo is a good author, or a great author, or an interesting author, or anything more than a hack. I asked it and, as usual, it dodged behind its “As an AI language model, I don’t make judgements…” routine.
If you want a bit of background reading for this post, you can refer to an old post I made in 2017, where I quoted at length a passage from Baron De Marbot’s memoirs of the napoleonic wars. Marbot is a fascinating literary character because he’s not only a great source on life during the napoleonic period, he’s a reconteur extraordinaire of some things that happened to him, which have been confirmed to have been actual events. [stderr] As I mention in that posting, Marbot’s shako, which he describes as taking a terrific cut from a sabre, is in the Musee Des Invalides in Paris – bearing the aforementioned sabre-cut. In fact I remember as a kid, before reading Marbot, thinking, “ow that looks bad” and later, I read about how it was, in fact, bad. The posting I reference above includes a lengthy chunk from Marbot’s memoirs, describing how he rode into an entire Russian corps on his evil mare Lisette(tm) and retrieved the battle flag of a French unit that was being overwhelmed. It was an amazing feat of derring-do, which nearly cost him his life.
Things begin innocently enough:
Uh, um. Naturally, someone fed ChatGPT with all the books in a few libraries, so Marbot’s memoirs went into the tokenizer along with everything else. I admit I was surprised, but I had been prepared to block-quote chunks from the memoirs at the AI. Turns out that was not necessary.
… and so on.
Is it great writing? No. Is it on par with Marbot’s? No. Is it on par with John Ringo? Maaaaaaaybe not. But could it do the heavy lifting to devise a few scenes that a hack writer of MilSF might upload into their next book? Uh oh.
See where I am going with this? The AI is a threat to great writers? Probably not. But it might help level up an army of mediocre writers that bury the voices of the great writers in a massive tsunami of MilSF that has been transcoded from actual historical events into interesting moments for their next pot-boiler. I was tempted to start cross-platforming the last stand of the Kusunoki clan from the Gempei war, but decided to stick with Marbot because there are so many fascinating events in his memoirs:
Of course, it’s not Ringo. But I find this all to be interesting. If I were a hack MilSF writer, and had a publishing house and an army of devoted fans who could shove whatever crap I wrote over the line to a Hugo nomination, I might.
I’ll also mention as an aside, I thought about asking it to write a Marbot story “in the style of Chuck Tingle” but I decided, for once, not to pursue my whims to their inevitable dark alleys.
I decided to punch up a bit more Ringo: Set the Ringo knob at 10.
Let me add that I am impressed by the way the AI maintains context. I do not have to repeat the prompt – like a human (better than some humans) it remembers what we were discussing and resumes where we left off. These prompts happened over the course of a day of me having another idea and dashing off a bit more text at ChatGPT.
I should mention that this text turned out to be difficult to hand to Midjourney to render as art, because words like “cutting” and “gore” are blocked. I find that incredibly stupid, of course, because it forced me to change “gore” to “wrack and ruin” and so forth. Also, Midjourney does not seem to like big battlefield scenes. I am guessing it has to do with some sort of average of what heroic illustration looks like: we are usually focused on the individual hero rather than the mass of fighting, scrabbling, bleeding people. Naturally, I had to collect a small folio of paintings of horrific napoleonic battles and feed them to Midjourney, because that is the kind of person I am.
By the way, Eylau was fought in horrible conditions in the “ice and snow” and I suspect that was what brought Immigrant Song to mind. John Ringo’s books (yes, I have read some!) feature Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper in some battle scenes, clearly aiming to play on echoes of Apocalypse Now’s memorable scene with Ride of The Valkyries.
Then, I reached down, and turned the Ringo knob to 11:
I feel my Hugo is dancing just within reach of my fingers. That is some truly mediocre MilSF. By which I mean good writers like E.B. Sledge or Marbot are in no danger, but I could see how this kind of glarp could “flood the zone” I did not include the entire text chunk for purposes of brevity, but the AI makes a point (Ringo-like) of repeatedly dwelling on the hero’s sexy curves and so forth.
In the discussion about AI over at Pharyngula, one point that occurred to me was that AI are going to have (for now) a problem with being right about things, in fields where there is an objective criterion for right or wrong. An AI cannot bloviate about the nature of dark energy or the volume of a rotational curve: there are verifiable answers. But I hypothesize that fields lacking objective criteria are going to be very easy for AIs to fudge responses into: marketing, psychology, philosophy, MilSF, screenplays, presidential speech-writing, on and on. A friend of mine and I have been playing with asking ChatGPT to write code for us, and have been enumerating the critical mistakes it makes. Perhaps ChatGPT can design a website that looks interesting, but when I asked it to write a C function that added a struct Node to the end of a linked list, it appears to have assumed I meant a struct Node * and accessed its member fields via pointers (instead of allocating memory and initializing a copy) C has objective criteria for good code and bad code, but speechwriting and MilSF do not.
It’s great to know that someone in powered armor is curvy. Personally, I always assumed that someone who was fighting an extended battle in powered armor probably smelled like goat: sweat and pee – not Chanel #5. The little vignette above is interesting: I specifically asked for the sabre-duel with the 3 English hussars from Marbot’s account of the campaign in Spain – and instead I got a powered-armor lance fight.
I trust I’ve made my point, though: AI can be used as a tool for elevating mediocrities and, as such, it’s not just a threat to the mediocre, it’s a source of infinite noise.
Until they became intensely boring, I read a few of the “Horatio Hornblower in space” MilSF “Honor Harrington” books. My suspicion was that the author was lifting events from actual history (loosely) – he certainly lifted political events and names (Saint-Just being a French politician of the revolutionary period, as well as a dictator in the SF series). I asked the AI to write me a sketch of the battle of Thermopylae as a space marine drama, and it did a credible job – and then it made Marbot the leader of the space marines, since I had forgotten that this vignette was part of the query-trail from the Marbot’s memoirs. Interesting. I didn’t get to the part where the giant insect-swarm overwhelms the brave troopers and rips their curvy bodies apart.
My favorite take on the whole “space marines” trope is John Steakley’s Armor, which I discovered by accident at a high school book fair. It’s an interesting take on the whole thing, and it manages to exude a sense of the endless despair of fighting an enemy that does not understand how to lose.
I now feel tempted to start forklifting characters from napoleonic military history into warhammer armor. Ugh. I’d have to collect reference images.
I have also done some experiments with having ChatGPT translate things into Jordan Peterson. What the heck, I will post one here: