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© 2017 The Strand Magazine

Art's Intelligence

 Image via razum/Shutterstock.

 

 

The first AI-written screenplay is promised to appear within five years. That’s sooner than most national pledges of net zero greenhouse gas emissions. It’s quicker than becoming a doctor. It’s closer than the prospect of eradicating poverty, famine, or inequality. It’s so close, it feels pointless to still act human and write this.

 

My impassioned defences of the beauty and purity of human intellect, human art, and human thought have been confronted with someone asking me, ‘But what if you didn’t know it was made by a computer? What if you only found out later, until after you pledged your eternal love towards a certain work?’ There is some truth to that. However, I still do believe that art goes beyond personal enjoyment. Sometimes it even goes beyond the art work itself—its merit lies in the still unmade or unfinished, in the mind of the beholder, in the abstract.

 

During an exchange between the poet Thomas Wyatt and the composer Thomas Tallis in an episode of The Tudors, Wyatt tells Tallis about how the creation of his poem is going: ‘I have the first line.’ The latter answers: ‘So you have almost everything.’ This suggests something about writing, or creating in general, that takes space outside the work, the author and the audience, the creator and the consumer. It resides outside the celebrity author, as well as Roland Barthes’s dead author. It gives attention to the space in between, the raw idea, the fabric of thought. The anticipation, that line of freshness and rejuvenation after staring at a blank page in agony, for hours or days.

 

Creating is tension relief. If humans weren’t creative, we would have gone extinct a long time ago, as there would have been too much pressure in the air for us to breathe freely. What would our world look like if we gave up on that intense, sometimes irritating and irresponsible side of us, the one that bothers to go beyond survival and sustenance?

 

While roles that are seemingly easily computed are being increasingly replaced by technology, there is something different about the artistic experience. A self-checkout machine in a supermarket, for instance, presents a significant issue for those who have lost or will lose their jobs in favour of AI, but it is assumed that everyone’s lives are made easier by no longer having to face a human cashier, or vice versa, a customer. Therefore, in a discourse about AI in jobs like these, the emphasis is purely on financial matters, and not on the experience of an individual, because the latter often seems insignificant.

 

When it comes to creating, on the other hand… the financial benefits of it are, to a large extent, a matter of luck. Consequently, why would anyone grab that pencil or that keyboard, slave away, and try to create something substantial, if it wasn’t out of pure and unadulterated craving for it? In that case, what is the point of wasting time and energy on “teaching” artificial intelligence to mimic our intelligence, one that springs out of passion? You can’t encode or decode passion, but you can silence it by giving all the fun to machines. 

 

Don’t take away our pleasure—or the masochistic verge of a stroke via staring at that blank page—I’m saying on behalf of (hopefully) most writers and creators. By inviting the idea of a computer writing a screenplay or a novel, one takes away the thrill of ideas, of thoughts, and the painstaking effort to turn the abstract into the corporeal. It is a miracle, in my opinion, to be able to translate the former into the latter. 

 

Now, what happens when the artists lose their jobs (not that many of them had one in the first place)? Do we start unfulfilling careers in uninspiring workplaces full-time? Do we look for a “serious” position? Or do we waste away, in subtle and involuntary protest? No matter how difficult the path of the artist can be, it is still a path. Otherwise, we would only be walking on artificial eggshells.

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