The ramifications of advances in artificial intelligence (A.I.) are being felt further afield than anyone expected. A.I. perhaps entered the public consciousness in the 1990s thanks to chess competitions, but it’s now infiltrating art competitions and, soon, the written word. Some commercial offerings can provide paragraphs of text based on brief prompts, keywords, and tone parameters. Users of Google’s email service have, of course, been microdosing on A.I. since 2018, when Gmail rolled out Smart Compose.
What these developments bring home is that people in the so-called “creative class” are now facing the first-person reckoning that automation has long presented to blue-collar workers: Technology is going to radically change the way we work.
As an analyst at a think tank, my job consists of processing policy trends, formulating new ideas to tackle economic and social problems, and advancing them through the written word. If programs like Midjourney, DALL-E, and Voyager can already captivate human audiences, I haven’t the slightest doubt that my modest ability to metabolize the policy landscape, reason my way to novel solutions, and manipulate language in provocative, engaging ways will soon be matched—and then surpassed—by A.I. programs designed for the task.
While I am under no illusion that my work merits any blue ribbons, putting thoughts into words that persuade or stir emotion entails a certain artistry. It’s an engrossing and gratifying process, one from which I derive identity. When I contemplate that a computer could soon do it better, I, like the Lancashire handloom weavers of the early 19th century, feel more than a bit threatened.
Garry Kasparov dealt with this conundrum two decades ago and has had a head start in managing the prospect of obsolescence. Kasparov, an all-time great chess player, had the distinction of holding the world title just at the same moment that computer chess programs ramped up their prowess. In 1996, Kasparov beat what was then the strongest chess engine ever created, IBM’s Deep Blue. But as he recounts in his memoir, Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, he knew then that his reign would soon end. Indeed, in a 1997 rematch for which Kasparov was handsomely compensated, an updated Deep Blue brought the age of A.I. to global attention, dealing the champion a stunning defeat in the match’s decisive sixth game.
In Deep Thinking, published in 2017, Kasparov explains how his perspective on A.I. has evolved and why. Despite the anguish the 1997 loss caused him, he views A.I. as one of the greatest opportunities for humanity to advance its well-being. The reason is that Kasparov has observed in the intervening years that the highest level of performance, on the chessboard and elsewhere, is reached when humans work with smart machines.
After Deep Blue’s programmers established that it could see deeper into the game than the human mind, Kasparov and a group of partners came up with a new concept: What if instead of human vs. machine, people played against one another but with the assistance of chess software?
They called the new style of play “advanced chess,” and the outcomes surprised Kasparov. It wasn’t the player with the best chess software that necessarily won, nor was it the best human player. Rather, the top performers were the players who were able to use the machines most effectively, those who were able to get the most out of the chess engines and their own creative abilities.
Operating on the premise of Moravec’s Paradox, i.e., where machines are strong is where humans are weak and vice versa, what Kasparov took away from the advanced chess experiment is that a clever working process beats both superior human talent and superior technological horsepower.
The same insight can be leveraged by artists, composers, writers, designers, and the like. Rather than viewing A.I. as the end of our livelihoods, we ought to see the opportunities it presents for better work.
For the creative class, the answer to the A.I. challenge is to make the most of the programs available to us. Is artistry lost because of A.I., or is it unlocked, as we are freed from some of the more formulaic structuring processes that drain energy? By delegating these aspects of creation to A.I., I anticipate having more mental space available to generate the rhetorical flourishes and the witty bits of embroidery that make writing enjoyable.
Yes, people deploying A.I. in the writing world, art competitions, and elsewhere will likely face scorn. But while a level playing field is appropriate in defined competitions, in open-ended fields to accuse a rival of cheating would be no more meaningful than in that of the textile industry. For the intrepid writer, A.I. will create opportunities to produce better work at a faster clip, just as the power loom did for the weavers of Lancashire.
Rather than fear, and certainly rather than Luddite suppression, this ought to be a moment of optimism. A.I. is coming for our jobs. Its arrival, however, will not be a harbinger of obsolescence but a catalyst for greater achievement.