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Point of View: It Matters What We Do, and that We Do It

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I recently saw a disturbing quote from Elon Musk (I know – is there any other kind?):

“It’s hard to say exactly what that moment is, but there will come a point where no job is needed,” the tech billionaire said. “You can have a job if you want to have a job — sort of personal satisfaction — but the AI will be able to do everything.”

I normally try to keep this column (and my life in general) a Musk-free zone, but I think he’s getting at something important here. We are moving into an era where it’s possible that computers, via generative AI, will be able to do everything we do. Maybe they will do it less well than we do, but still well enough for corporations to adopt it. Or maybe they will continue to improve with time, and eventually surpass our own capabilities.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the latter is true. If a generative AI app can write a story as well as (or better than) I can – and not only one story, but a new story, instantaneously, for every person that requests one – where does that leave me as a writer?

If AI can create the perfect picture for any need at the click of the button, who needs artists anymore?

Musk’s answer is to provide a “Universal High Income” to everyone, so we can all live a life of leisure and pursue… what, exactly? Leaving aside the question of where the money would come from to pay for all of this, how will we spend a life full of free time, when everything we could possibly do can already be done better without us?

Far from being the utopia he proposes, this strikes me as a sad, dark and bleak nightmare.

For all that generative AI can do right now, and might be able to do in the future, this kind of AI is not really intelligent. It has no perspective, no intent, and no soul. Sure, it can create technically perfect works of art (if you overlook the extra fingers and weird patterns hidden in the dark places). And sure, it may be able to craft entertaining, well-written stories some day, though that possibility still seems far off.

But it can’t speak to humans the way we speak to one other.

Each of my stories was conceived from an idea, and carefully nurtured over days, weeks or months to convey to you, my dear reader, a particular mood, a specific thought, and a unique take on whatever I am writing about. And you as the reader bring your own human experience and biases to it, connecting with my own. We have a rapport that generative AI can’t match, no matter how many “perfectly written” stories it spits out into the ether.

One day, maybe, an actual sentient Artificial Intelligence will arise, and then all bets are off. Even money if it just destroys us instantly or becomes a partner with us in a new kind of world.

But generative AI is not that. Instead, it’s that text autocomplete function you’ve been using for years, but on steroids. It’s a program making guesses in the dark about what word comes next, what pixel goes next to another, and in the end reflecting back to us a funhouse mirror version of our own world.

So maybe generative AI will eventually replace me in the marketplace, flooding me out and seeing my one new novel by raising me a thousand derivative works, so that no one else can find my books.

But someone still will. People will find a way around the market gatekeepers, those cesspools of randomly generated dreck, to discover places where real humans are still talking to real humans. Where human-created art still moves the soul, because it actually means something.

And when they do, I’ll be waiting.

What we do matters. And it matters that we humans keep doing it.

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