For those of us born before about the year 2000, our memories worked differently. We knew phone numbers off by heart. Facts. Dates. The best way to get from Manor House to Marble Arch. The viewing schedule for Neighbours. Then along came Google and smartphones and suddenly all the information you ever needed was in your pocket. I’m not saying we became giant walking scaleless goldfish, but scientists generally agree that our memories changed. Fast forward a couple of decades from now, and we will probably look back at 2023 as a similar turning point in the human brain, but this time for creativity.
In November, OpenAI released on an unsuspecting world ChatGPT, an artificially intelligent chatbot that can do everything from write a (dubious) song lyric in the style of Nick Cave to pass an MBA exam to pontificate about the nature of consciousness. Type in a request and up pops a response before you’ve had time to put the kettle on It has since become the fastest growing web platform in history, with an update called GPT-4 adding to its eerie power in March 2023.
I’ve experimented with ChatGPT in a number of ways. I’ve had it write me a limerick about pizza, a letter to my kid’s school, and a short story in the literary style of the New Yorker magazine using a bird as a metaphor for death. “In the twilight of a winter’s day, the old man walked along the banks of the river, lost in his own thoughts,” the story begins. “He watched as the last vestiges of light vanished from the sky, and the trees bowed their heads, as if in reverence to the approaching night.” ChatGPT’s results are instant and not terrible. It’s like dark magic. And this is a technology in its infancy. As a creative person, I’m both mesmerised and appalled.
I’m not the only one. The backlash against generative AI – an umbrella term for deep learning systems trained on reams of texts and images until they can spit out their own content in response to prompts – has been intense, from creative professionals who fear the end of their livelihoods to the titans of the tech industry themselves. Elon Musk – hardly a reactionary Luddite, whatever else you might call him – joined other AI leaders in a controversial open letter calling for an urgent six-month pause on “giant AI experiments” for the sake of humanity. Italy went further and banned ChatGPT outright over privacy concerns. Whether we get a pause or not, AI has already tossed a molotov cocktail into the parched straw of our creative industries. But what about the impact it could have on our own minds?To better understand the implications for human creativity I spoke to the neuroscientist Professor Anna Abraham, author of the book The Neuroscience of Creativity. An academic at the University of Georgia in the US and organiser of the 2023 Torrance Festival of Ideas, Anna is visibly passionate about the importance of human ingenuity. Our conversation about AI could not be described as reassuring.
“I define creativity as having ideas that are both novel and satisfying. And the satisfying aspect will just go out the window,” she explained over a video call.
This neatly summarises my own fears. Creativity is hard: it involves avoiding the path of least resistance. As the writer Dorothy Parker timelessly put it, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Only a deadline, a bucket of coffee and no alternative gets me to write anything. Will anyone still push through the pain and bask in the reward when it’s as easy to whip up a screenplay as it is to ask Google Maps for directions?What’s more, creativity isn’t a neat, discrete faculty that sits alongside retro moustaches or yoga-wear as the hallmark of a certain kind of artsy person. As Abraham explained, it’s a fundamental part of the critical thinking and emotional connections that make us all human. Take comforting the bereaved: “You have to do the hard thing and think of what to write or say. But we could outsource it.”
This ease, this relentless quest from the tech industry to remove all friction from our lives, has set us down a troubling path. “If we do the easy thing, which is to outsource all of our communication to something else, we might actually lose sense of what is our own voice, and that is central to creativity,” Abraham says. “Recognising your own voice, reasoning for yourself, integrating information yourself as opposed to having it all done for you… I’m worried about how AI will impact general learning, general understanding, and all of that will have a knock-on impact on creativity.”
This has consequences not just for the person doing the creating – whether it’s for a sympathy card, a work email, a poem or a political campaign – but the person on the receiving end. As Anna explained: “A good idea only lands if there are enough people to understand it, hear it, feel it.” The age of AI could erode our ability to create, contemplate and connect.
As with all periods of technological upheaval, it’s important to look at the historical context. Creativity has been through the mill before: the advent of writing in the first place killed off rich oral traditions of poetry and story-telling. The printing press changed creativity, as did the radio, the television, the internet, social media… But we’re arguably just as creative, brandishing more tools, tapping into more influences and sharing our work more widely than ever before.
There’s also the fact that for the real writers, ChatGPT is a distraction or an insult rather than a competitor. The sublimely melancholic singer-songwriter Nick Cave called the song lyrics the bot concocted, purportedly in his style, “bulls***”. The Shakespearian sonnet Radio 4 prompted ChatGPT to write for Valentine’s Day was hammy and hollow, despite Charles Dance’s sonorous reading of it. That short story about the bird is not in any state to trouble the inbox of the New Yorker’s editorial staff. Algorithms have no soul, they don’t suffer, they are incapable of the ragged authenticity that feeds real art.
And yet, and yet. This tool is only just getting started. You can keep prompting it and prodding it – be more nuanced, be more vivid, don’t use clichés. It’s continuously learning and improving in ways even its creators can’t predict. I can’t help feeling that this technology revolution is on a different order of magnitude, that we’ve unleashed something whose consequences we haven’t even begun to understand.
Interacting with ChatGPT, as Abraham put it, is like “asking a genie for a wish”. It gives me both goosebumps and nightmares. What most schoolchildren, and perhaps too few AI developers, know is that there’s a problem with genies. Once they’re out, they won’t go back in the bottle.
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