Something From Nothing

Something From Nothing
Weimaraner Driving a Mini Cooper by William Esmont via MidJourney AI

Or: Fun with Generative AI

Baby Steps

Early in my former career as a software engineer, I did a short stint at a data mining company. My job was to take the algorithms created by the mad scientist analytics guy and weave in all the testing and support scaffolding so we could meet our contractual obligations. The work suited me. As an engineer, I've always gravitated toward the role of building stability and durability into systems. As a bonus, I had a front-row seat watching some really smart people figuring out the tech that would power parts of the internet as we know it today.

While I wasn't the one creating the algorithms, I  spent enough time poring over them and enough time sitting in meetings listening to people talk about them, that they became embedded in my mind.

I saw the impact of these algorithms everywhere I looked, from the way Google plucked flight information from my email and automatically created calendar appointments to the way Siri responded to my requests for driving directions to the crazy shit that used to show up in my Facebook feed when I still used Facebook.

To be honest though, none of these things the big tech companies were doing were that different from what I saw at the data mining company. Just more.



This all changed a few months ago, when I came across an article describing how a man in Colorado had used a new type of AI to win an art contest. By describing what he wanted to see using plain old text, the AI generated this:

Théâtre D’opéra Spatial by Jason Allen

I had to know more.

I beat a path over to Midjourney and spent the next few days writing prompts and playing around. It's cool. Incredibly cool. There's something almost magical about typing in a few words and seeing an image pop up on your screen.

For the first time in many, many years, I was actually blown away by a new piece of technology.

Uh Oh

Around the same time I took the job at the data mining company, I was making my first clumsy attempts at writing a novel-lenth story. While I enjoyed writing software, I needed something that was all my own. The first time you create a web page to reset a password is kind of fun. The tenth - not so much.

I usually find coming up with new story ideas to be pretty easy. However, that's just the first step of the process. The hard part is what comes next: deciding which ones to invest in.

Turning a raw idea into a novel is fucking hard. Harder than you can possibly imagine. You're creating something from nothing, with absolutely no guarantee that what you create will be worth reading. You sacrifice your health and your relationships and your sanity in the hopes that the mass of words you vomit onto the page (or the screen) will maybe, just maybe entertain someone.

When I put it like that, it sounds kind of insane.

So, why do it?

Because I have to. The stories are already inside me, like an itch waiting to be scratched. I can't imagine what it would be like to not write them. Or to not attempt to write them, since many of them never actually reach The End for whatever reason.

Anyway. Writing. Computers. Text.

I've always viewed writing as something inherently human. It takes imagination. It takes creativity. It takes life experience. All the things that we have and computers don't.

But another recent development in the AI world is forcing me to reconsider my long-held beliefs.

This development is called ChatGPT, and it's based on similar tech as MidJourney.

You enter a text prompt and the computer spits out text in return, text that is so close to what a human would write that you can't even tell the difference.

For real.

Here's an example:

It's not great, but it's not bad either. You could easily take this as a skeleton, and with a little polish, turn it into a decent little story.

Maybe I can have ChatGPT write an entire novel for me? Can it do that? Let's see:

It's been years since I read Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and I still can't shake the idea of super-intelligent spiders. If you have't read it yet, I totally recommend it.

So what does this mean for me as a person who likes to write stories?

I honestly don't know yet. The tech is moving SO fast that it's difficult to  comprehend where it's going or what it means. Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, even if we all love doing it.

As someone who spent a lot of years writing code, and who has a passing knowledge of how some of this AI tech works, I can't help but believe that the inability of ChatGPT to fulfill my request for a full 80K word novel is entierly arbitrary.

I'd bet good money there's a feature switch in a YAML file somewhere that will allow my request to proceed. Some engineer at OpenAI just has to make the edit.

Would an 80K novel generated by an AI be any good? Who knows? Art is subjective. Would it be good enough or some people? Maybe.


I think I'll write a story about this.

Or maybe I'll have ChatGPT do it.

Further Reading