Software intelligence has improved so much so that now your email programs can finish a sentence for you as soon as you start to write it. Smart replies have been around for the past few years and both kinds, lazy and busy, are using them already.
What’s more, news and articles are also getting written by AI, and so are the product descriptions. Just the last month one of my contacts published a book that boasted having a chapter written by AI.
While once in a while, having this done for the gimmick is okay, making it mainstream will only beget problems. Just because AI can write, does not mean it should!
Just because it can, does not mean it should!
Every new technology gives us two things — promise and consequence. The promise attracts us towards technology and encourages us to adopt it. But, it is the consequence we should be looking at when making a final call. Unless promise doesn’t outweigh consequences by the factor of 5x or more, technology adoption should remain under trial.
Now the question is, why do I think that AI writing for us is a threat to human intelligence. Note that there is a difference between intellect and intelligence as such. Generally speaking, intellect is based on facts, whereas intelligence is based on feelings. Therefore, the intellect may be easy to automate; intelligence isn’t.
Intellect is based on facts, whereas intelligence is based on feelings.
Nonetheless, regardless of the technology promise, I think it will be only humane to safeguard human intelligence, no matter what. One such source of human intelligence is our ability to write. It is not just scribbling of letters, but we are talking about thoughtful writing.
Why is AI writing for us such an awful idea?
First of all, machines have no ear for human language. The output is always dry, mindless, lacking soul, a block of text that doesn’t talk to the reader — heart to heart.
There is a famous saying in Hindi, “Kos kos par badle paani, chaar kos par baani!”. It means that the taste of the water changes every four miles while the language (vernacular) changes every eight.
Language evolves all the time — through time, while meanings stay preserved. Machines don’t have any flair for that (yet!).
Technology is and always has been the “how” part. If we don’t get “why” and “what” part right, it can be detrimental. Take an example where AI is writing articles for content marketing. These articles are generally full of keywords and have little to no value. Moreover, they mostly come up with clickbaity titles. Add AI to that equation, and you get low-cost, high volume article generator with 100% misuse potential. I won’t be surprised if your internet search results get drastically affected by this and start annoying you.
It’s not just about writing; it’s about the process
I often say, writing isn’t one activity; it’s a process. A process through which we think and clarify our thoughts.
Essentially, writing is one small part of a more extensive process of communication. The larger process involves thinking, writing, reading, thinking (again) and re-writing.
Writing is one small part of a more extensive process of communication. The larger process involves thinking, writing, reading, thinking (again) and re-writing.
Before we pen down (or type) something, we often think first. It may be a response to a question. It may be an opinion on something we read, saw, or heard. Or it may be something we’ve imagined all along. That thinking then we distill and put it down in a readable form by way of writing.
And, that’s when something interesting happens. We read what we wrote, and just like any reading, it further instills more thinking. In this case, this thinking about our writing. This (re)thinking gives us feedback, which we use to clarify our thoughts. It helps us ensure that we have written what we were thinking earlier. Based on that feedback, we tend to rewrite or finalize our writing.
You see, how seemingly simple the writing process can use our brain and give it a useful exercise it needs to stay healthy and functional. Just like going to the gym, writing is the gym for our brain. Reading and listening are a few other exercises we can do in addition to writing.
Our ability to think, analyze, synthesize, creating complex information helps us in making decisions. Decisions that impact us, our surroundings, environment, and society at large. If we don’t do that, how can we make any meaningful contribution to our community or humanity?
Clarity and stronger memory
When writing, we talk internally, which gives our writing some coherence, voice, and clarity. Not only that, when we self-talk and write, the process makes us clear in our actions. We know what to say, and we remember what we said. It gets hardwired in our brain in the form of neuron connections, and so we rarely forget.
Outsourcing this ability to AI only will make humans less humane and perhaps useless part of the society. After all, why do you want someone in a community who can’t think or work any better than machines and only are consuming scarce and valuable resources?
Yuval Harari, in one of his TED talks, said that the critical political and economic question of the 21st century would be, “What do we need humans for?”, or at least, “What do we need so many humans for?”
It seems that, if we keep losing these essential skills, these questions would undoubtedly become a necessity.
The grey matter — use it or lose it!
Extending AI and automation, beyond logical limits could potentially alter our perception of what humans can do. For example, several decades ago, doing a math calculation by hand on a piece of paper was a highly appreciated skill for a human being. Now, with the advent of calculators and computers, we don’t see much value in that (skill) anymore.
We still value human interaction, communication skills, emotional intelligence and several other qualities in humans. What happens when an AI app takes over? What happened to AI doing mundane tasks and leaving time for us to do what we like and love?
There is a high risk that eventually, several humans would resign from their intellect and sit on sidelines, waiting for their smartphone app to tell them what to do next and how they might be feeling now!
When we invented automatic cars, an upgrade from manual gear shift cars, we almost lost hand-leg-brain coordination that was once important. It is not just a matter of coordination per se; it is the matter of thinking, which is what humans do and are good at, aren’t we?
The enormous power carried by the grey matter in our heads may become blunt and eventually useless, if we never exercise it, turning it into just some slush. The old saying, “use it or lose it” is explicitly applicable in this case.
Being present and engaging with the world around us can be a lost art if we don’t pay attention to it. Million years ago, humans lost the tail, would the brain be the next?
“Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (A Gift of Love, Beacon Press, 1963)
Preserve writing to preserve thinking
Amongst several of our faculties, thinking is the one that helps us augment our intellect and intelligence continually. Writing is arguably and often, the most significant manifestation of thought. Putting that in danger, knowingly, doesn’t seem logical or sane!
I keep saying, machines getting smarter than us isn’t the real problem, the problem is we losing our smarts. Our intellectual resignation is a significant risk. If we become dumb or dumber, then the relative difference between a barely smart machine and a dumb human will be huge. That’s enough for us to be in trouble, and put others in trouble too!
Our future is whatever we make it; let’s take the first step towards making it better. Let’s start thinking for ourself, today, and shun the automated feed of decisions that are made for us (by someone or something else).
“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” — David McCullough (Interview with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, Humanities, July/Aug. 2002, Vol. 23/?4)
Writing can be one of the superpowers for the coming decade, not in its own right, but as a process that enables clear thinking! Everyone doesn’t need to become a prolific writer; merely writing a journal can make a big difference in clarifying thinking and making one a better person. Let’s imbibe that; preserve human writing, preserve thinking!
Our future is whatever we make it, so let’s make it a good one!