ChatGPT – the ghostwriter in the machine

ChatGPT – the ghostwriter in the machine

Mar 15, 2023Alan Wong

In a book titled The Wise Little Squirrel: A Tale of Saving and Investing, a squirrel named Sammy finds a gold coin while picking up acorns. Sammy's friends Benny the Bear and Lily the Chipmunk then help the squirrel learn about the importance and benefits of saving and investing.

Sounds normal, except that the author, Brett Schickler, had help writing it: the software sensation ChatGPT, an AI interface developed by artificial intelligence research lab OpenAI that produces replies based on user queries. Schickler "wrote" The Wise Little Squirrel by prompting ChatGPT with queries like "write a story about a dad teaching his son about financial literacy". He also employed AI to design the cover.

As of mid-February, over 200 e-books in Amazon's Kindle store are listed as authored or co-authored by ChatGPT, according to Reuters. Interestingly, the only clues hinting that Schickler's book is in this category are some of the reviews on its Amazon page. Apparently, Amazon does not require authors to disclose whether their books were penned with AI help – not yet, at any rate, so the actual number of such books on Kindle may be higher.

So, should YOU take that step? It's been said that we all have a book in us but we somehow never get around to writing it. With such a disposable tool at one's fingertips, ignoring it – and the itch to finally get published – would make little sense.

Writing with ChatGPT: pros and cons

The AI model behind ChatGPT, Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT3), was released in 2020 and chiefly uses English as a medium. ChatGPT does not scour the internet for information; its "memory" comprises a humongous data pool from which it draws upon to reply to users. OpenAI touts GPT3 models as being capable of natural language processing tasks such as text generation, summarisation, and analysis, which sounds pretty powerful, even though queries and replies are limited to short paragraphs each time.

For a beleaguered writer, however, ChatGPT's outputs look good enough for developing synopses, storylines, back cover copy, and blurbs. Can't think of a plot? Want better dialogue for a scene? Not sure how to move the story forward? Query the AI with the required keywords and watch the magic happen. Often, all one needs is a push – seeing a concept lift off in text – to get started.

Cyberspace teems with testimonials from those who co-authored their books with ChatGPT. While the results are eye-opening and sometimes astounding, they're not quibble-free. One user found the output to be "predictable" and "bland", and training it to write in one's "voice" proved difficult. Another experienced mixed results with different ways of prompting the AI, though signs of better improvisations appear with repeats of the same prompts. At other times, however, it exhibits typical AI behaviour, like writing plausible-sounding but incorrect or ridiculous replies.

That and the spectre of plagiarism loom large when discussing ChatGPT's use in journalism and academia. Using GPT2, a previous version of OpenAI's GPT model, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found instances of plagiarism in tests: rehashing of text and ideas without attribution. Writers of historical fiction or science fiction in particular may also want to check AI output for accuracy and plausibility before publication, if they don't want their AI-aided work nitpicked to death on Goodreads.

Limits on the length of queries and replies mean no instant novel-length masterpieces at the touch of a button. Also, ChatGPT isn't built as a writing assistant, even if it can be used as one. AI tools designed for that purpose exist, such as Sudowrite and Laika.

But perhaps the biggest drawback of outsourcing your work to an AI is that you don't learn and experience as much as you would when you're doing it yourself. Writing a book is a process and when you depend too much on AI, you're disconnected from that process and ultimately, your work. How much personal satisfaction will you get from putting your name on a book where chunks of it were plotted and written by AI? Can you confidently and sincerely say that it's all yours?

The inevitable boom of AI-assisted writing

As writing becomes less of a craft and more of a commodity in a modern publishing ecosystem, such sentiments may come off as old-fashioned, like the notion of chivalry. How is employing AI different from hiring editors and book cover designers, some might argue. And so what if AI-designed covers look wonky? Readers on Kindle are wont to care more about content. As more authors bypass traditional publishers to book a spot on virtual shelves – with authors of self-help, reference materials and similar non-fiction genres scrambling to get their titles out first to stay ahead of the pack, AI assistance will become a necessity rather than a novelty.

ChatGPT notched its 100 millionth user milestone just two months after its launch last November, making it the fastest-growing consumer application to date. Besides writing books, it can also produce abstracts of academic papers, debug code, and answer exam questions, among other things, and the queries and feedback it receives help it to improve further. ChatGPT is free for now, though you have to sign up to use it. A subscription-based version is available, and a new iteration of the GPT model is scheduled for release this year. At this rate, the time when AI can compete with flesh-and-blood authors in eye-catching, emotive long-form writing may arrive sooner than we think.

So how can writers stand out when so many are letting AI plot or ghostwrite their content? It all comes back to the writer's touch: that romanticised, intangible "you'll know it when you see it" X-factor in all creative souls. One's spoken and written voice is said to be unique and, if one strives, can stir the hearts and minds of others – which is perhaps more than what can be said about staid template phrases put together by machines to merely answer questions.

While AI writing technology is still in its infancy, we probably should learn to hone our voices and the ability to connect with others before machines overtake us on that score.

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Comments (1)

  • Interesting article ! I’ve always wondered how ChaptGPT and OpenAi will change the way we live our lives, how it will impact society and most importantly, how i do my job everyday ;)


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