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Can ChatGPT Make You a Better Writer?

The Quebec Writers’ Federation reflects on the threats, challenges, and benefits of artificial intelligence

It turns out ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot that has taken the academic world by storm, might not be all evil. Sure, it has the ability to replace human labour in multiple professions, provoke security breaches, and disseminate misinformation, but what if it could enhance your creativity, help you express your thoughts more clearly, and sharpen your writing skills, too?

This very dilemma was raised at the AI and the Future of Writing event, a panel discussion put on by the Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF) on September 21 at the Atwater Library. A packed house listened with rapt attention as moderator Julian Sher led QWF vice-president Crystal Chan, author Sean Michaels, and McGill professor Andrew Piper in a lively reflection on the uses of artificial intelligence in creative writing.

Michaels broke the ice by reminding everyone that there is nothing new about systems like ChatGPT.  “Think of auto-complete on your phone, or spell check in Microsoft Word,” he told the crowd. The Montreal-based writer went on to tell the story of his introduction to the chatbot in 2019, on a website called Talk to Transformer, and how it led him to write his most recent book, Do You Remember Being Born?, a novel about the intersection of AI and poetry.

“I just stumbled onto this space and I started writing some things, and I found myself deeply disquieted, unsettled, and at times a little bit delighted by what it was feeding back to me,” he recalls. Once Michaels presented his fiction to the AI, he received new writing in a voice eerily similar to his own. “It had kind of an unsettlingly good – not great – but an unsettlingly good grasp of aspects of my writing style,” he shared. The experiment led him to write Do You Remember Being Born?, a novel about a 75-year-old poet who moves to California to write a poem with the Silicon Valley Company’s new poetry AI. The book, which was published a few weeks ago through Random House Canada, was written by Micheals with the help of an AI program of his design, making it a great example of how artificial intelligence can be used to supplement creativity. 

For Crystal Chan, QWF’s vice-president, ChatGPT is not cheeky nor is it creative. “It doesn’t just create something out of thin air, it’s predicting based on existing content,” she explains. She finds that in terms of mysticism and magic, artists and writers are doing unpredictable things with AI, not the other way around. She points to Micheals’ achievement and reminds everyone that the idea for the novel came from him: “It is interesting to play around with artificial intelligence to see what it is good at, what it is bad at, but you must factor in some lore of your own, too.”  

Andrew Piper, who teaches in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University, supported Chan’s argument. “It’s forcing us to rethink how we write, or how we assign writing,” he says of the chatbot. Professor Piper expressed his concern that tools like ChatGPT could eventually replace skills like writing, but thinks the software could potentially be beneficial in the long run. “We know some kids really succeed at writing. Some kids really fail at it. But imagine if this thing could be some kind of writing assistant, a sort of personalized interactive bot that could help you be a little more creative, help you figure out how to express your thoughts through writing. That could be very exciting,” he shares. 

In the end, all three panelists agreed that using AI to complement your creative process is not without risks. Although the outcome can be fascinating when put into the hands of highly discerning creative professionals, they believe writers must have already honed their hard skills in order to use a chatbot effectively. In other words, ChatGPT cannot turn you into a writer. At least not for now. “Could this tool somehow augment and facilitate learning? We just don’t know yet,” concluded Professor Piper.