We’re living through times changing so fast that it seems ridiculous to imagine the future. Over the past year, I’ve developed an addiction to watching YouTube. It’s an easy way to take the pulse on a lot of topics and subcultures. I watch between one and two dozen short videos a day, as well as read several kinds of news feeds on my computer. During the past two weeks, since the announcements of GPT4 and MidJourney 5, my YouTube feed has been overwhelmed with AI stories. Possibilities are exploding like a-bombs.
I believe we’re in the middle of a societal paradigm shift. It’s already possible to write science fiction with the aid of an AI, but creators can also create SF graphic novels and comics, SF videos, and movies with AI creating all the visuals including the actors, SF audiobooks using AI-created voices, and even newer SF art forms. Already, it was possible with technology for a writer to create and book via their own artistic skills and self-publish it, now they can use an AI cowriter, or even an AI ghostwriter.
There’s one barrier that AI can’t cross, as of now. And that’s creating new science fictional concepts. The writer who can take in everything that’s going on now and speculate about the near future in any coherent way has the edge – for the moment. AIs based on current training models are essentially limited to rearranging the deck chairs on the Carnival Cruise’s Mardi Gras. What’s disappointing, is that’s exactly what most current human science fiction writers are doing too.
Everyone is freaking out over AI being more creative than humans, but right now AIs are becoming more and more creative like humans. They take old art and rearrange it to suit themselves. Both humans and AI are recyclers.
Even when a human does do something startlingly different, like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, it’s still possible to deconstruct most of it to stock off-the-shelf parts. William Shakespeare is rated number one as a creative writer, but look how brilliant he was at recycling.
We don’t actually want 100% original creativity. How many people read Finnegans Wake, a work where Joyce tried to be uniquely original?
Although it has fallen out of favor, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was vastly different from anything science fiction had produced before it. So was Frank Herbet’s Dune. More recent examples would be Hyperion by Dan Simmons and The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. But all those novels were black swans, weren’t they? So how could we predict them?
Right now we have more science fiction of all kinds being produced than ever before. That production is going into overdrive with AI. And the percentage of it that’s readable and entertaining is increasing. That’s also part of the problem – there’s too much science fiction – at least for any one work to become widely known. Good science fiction novels have almost become a generic product line, in white boxes with black letter labeling.
What we need is a writer who has a holistic perspective of our time that can write a Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Handmaid’s Tale about what we’re experiencing in the 2020s. Kim Stanley Robinson keeps trying but doesn’t quite hit the mark. His novel The Ministry for the Future was impactful like Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar was back in the 1960s, but both books were too experimental, too intellectual, and not emotionally moving. I’m not sure AIs will ever be genuinely emotionally moving, but they will be able to fake it.
Is anyone ever original on their own? Don’t we all stand on the shoulders of others? As Newton pointed out, the goal is to stand on the shoulders of giants.
James Wallace Harris, 4/2/23
15 thoughts on “The Future of Science Fiction”
Thanks for this thoughtful post! I agree (for the most part, anyway) that what most writers are doing is not so different from what ChatGPT is getting increasingly good at doing. Just as in most times in human history, what most writers are doing is pretty forgettable. It’s true that there is a lot more good writing out there than there was 100 years ago, partly because of higher literacy rates and partly because there are more people in existence, but I think you are right that most fiction out there is mix-and-match stuff. We’re not far off, I fear, from the day that Chat GPT can write a better (read: more creative) story than any human can. However, even that doesn’t have to mean the end of human writing–Mangus Carlsen has made a very meaningful life for himself playing chess, even though there will always be computers that can play chess better.
Yes, the point is to work cooperatively with AI tools. Your example of the chess master is a good one. Also in the chess world, human players team up with AI players to play other AI/human teams.
I’ve started learning Midjourney. It’s quite complicated with infinite prompt possibilities. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument that produces digital art rather than sound.
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I just wanted to thank you for such a thoughtful post. I’ve also been overwhelmed by the influx of AI related YouTube content. As a digital creative, I look back at my output and wonder how much of it could be completed in minutes via a few keywords. Art is just making choices, so I guess your keyword list becomes your means of expression. But the way the source material is harvested, and the dim prospects of artists getting proper acknowledgment bothers me. If the fallout from the advent of social media has taught us anything, it’s that going fast and breaking things has implications, down the line. I don’t want art that relies on VC funding and only answers to shareholders.
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Thanks, Steven, and I feel you! I agree: “moving fast and breaking things has implications.” In fact, I suppose that is the whole idea behind the “move fast and break things” mentality. At bottom, though, many of those folks are like the ridiculous “Disruptors” from the movie Glass Onion–
I wonder how ChatGPT is at deliberate inversions and extensions of concepts. If you look at almost any theme entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, that is what you see in a concept’s development. I would agree, though, that most human writers are synthesizers.
It would be seem that a writer of a peculiar psychology and propensity for social isolation might produce something original solely by virtue of being cut off from the virtual and social realities you find online — the sources of ChatGPT’s data.
Right now ChatGPT has a lot of limitations when it comes to creativity. If you use it much you see where it’s brilliant but also where it’s dumb. But it will improve. It’s easy to see the improvement by using the same prompt in ChatGPT which is v. 3.5 and the GPT built into Bing which is using v. 4.0.
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I don’t entirely agree that what these Large Language Models are doing are comparative to how humans learn. I wouldn’t call it learning, more like very sophisticated statistical models that are able to “predict” the next word in a sentence. It is trained on vast amounts of text written by humans, but I would argue that authors do more than simply getting inspiration from other works. They also gather life experiences from merely being alive with all that entails. Most human authors do more than just rewriting existing texts in a new way. Though we could probably all come up with examples of authors who seem to mostly reuse other peoples ideas, but that is beside the point.
There is also a whole grey area in terms of legal rights. It is not clear who actually owns the copyright to the output these AIs output since they are so heavily trained on already copyrighted works. It is not so clearcut that AI tools will replace human authors right away at least.
Neil Clarke also had a good editorial on this matter in the latest Clarkesworld issue https://clarkesworldmagazine.com/clarke_04_23/
True, we’re not there yet, but AI is getting closer. I believe they are doing something like what we do because those models can produce similar results. Maybe human minds work a bit like large language models.
I think it should be noted that most of what people read is driven by what agents, editors, and publishers think readers want to read (and buy). And in the case of self-published works, what sort of stories the readers themselves are buying. I think the market delivers pretty much what the readers want; something familiar, but just a little different. And for this, AI derived stories will be just fine. I certainly see the day not far off when you can subscribe to an app on you phone that will write a story in seconds custom designed for you using the themes and tropes, and even the characters you invent, on demand.
All sorts of AI created art is here, and will have to be dealt with. Just as the weavers in their front rooms lost their livelihood to industrial mills, many artists are going to lose paying jobs. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create. Just that you can’t make a living off of it. (Not that most artists ever did.)
My friend Connell said he always imagined these creative jobs would be immune to AI, and that machines would take over all the physical work. But now he sees that it’s just the opposite.
Like you, I write for the pleasure of writing, of creating, and I’m an amateur painter as well for the same reason. Machines can’t take that away from us.
I have to say that so far, I haven’t felt any desire to try my hand at Midjourney or Chat GPT yet. Maybe I should. As you point out, they actually encourage and expand a person’s creativity. I think they’re positive developments, by and large.
Wow, a really interesting article. ChatGPT and everything it entails kinda freaks me out, but ultimately the best type of entertainment made will be soley from humans I think. Interesting stuff!
AI writing will come from what it ‘already knows’ but I agree that humans have the edge on AI when it comes to forward thinking etc…
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
What is being called AI right now is just bayesian probability strapped to a thesaurus built of things scraped from the Internet. As such, it has no new concepts, only those we feed it – garbage in, garbage out. This predictive text on steroids doesn’t actually understand anything.
It only knows how to give people what it thinks they want based on statistics.
Granted, it can look magical, but we live in a world of suspended disbelief where flat-earthers use mobile phones bouncing off satellites to say that the earth being round is a conspiracy.
To magicians, there is never magic.