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Genuine Imitation and Authentically Artificial Intelligence

When I was a student, I had a side hustle.

(NOTE: I’m not condoning or proud of what I did, but this confession of academic dishonesty from my school days has a greater point. Also, if you were a “client,” no need to out yourself.)

It all started when a classmate in high school asked me to tutor her after school and she’d pay me for my time. I said sure. When she asked me later to do her assignments, I also said sure once we agreed on a price. Ethically, I had no qualms with doing her work. I wanted the practice (and the money) and she wanted the product. She later went to college for business and made a successful career in corporate America delegating work to others. This side hustle grew through word of mouth and I continued to ghostwrite for others for a price in my college years. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I truly recognized that aiding and abetting cheating was cheating and that this early entrepreneurial effort was unethical. Yet at the time, I didn’t see it that way. If others didn’t want to learn or do the work, that was not my responsibility.

Years later, when I was a teacher, there were plenty of students who would attempt to plagiarize or cheat on their assignments. I often marveled at the utter lack of care to conceal their plagiarism, leaving shifting fonts and hyperlinks obvious in crude cut-and-paste jobs. These early examples were in the days before websites like Turn It In and other plagiarism detectors were available, but it would be obvious to me. As a teacher, I was responsible for ensuring learning from my students and I took that responsibility seriously. I wasn’t going for gotcha situations, but I would know because I would make it a point to see what students were capable of on their own before introducing technology into classroom routines.

All this to say, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) has dramatically altered the landscape for students and for creators of all mediums. I say this as a general fact. As Stephen King wrote, “Creativity can’t happen without sentience, and there are now arguments that some A.I.s are indeed sentient. If that is true now or in the future, then creativity might be possible. I view this possibility with a certain dreadful fascination. Would I forbid the teaching (if that is the word) of my stories to computers? Not even if I could. I might as well be King Canute, forbidding the tide to come in. Or a Luddite trying to stop industrial progress by hammering a steam loom to pieces.”

In the professional sphere, A.I. is broadening its own educational background by learning (if that’s the word) a broad catalog of literary works, including those of Stephen King. Perhaps this would have gone unnoticed if these companies stuck with public domain works (meaning works whose copyright licenses have expired) or negotiated with writers and publishers for licensing the use of their products (permission for the use of copyrighted materials is legally required, not just a professional courtesy), but they didn’t so class action lawsuits of notable writers are suing A.I. technology companies. Then there are the literary unknowns who have self-published their works and are now battling A.I. replicates using their names, works, and products without permission. Due to legal loopholes, laws have not caught up to technology and many of these writers, especially the self-published ones without the legal and financial backing of agencies and publishers, are currently left with minimal recourse. Although there are many reasons for writers’ strikes in Hollywood, regulating the use of A.I. in the industry is certainly a major sticking point. In fact, after 146 days, the writers’ strike has finally come to a tentative resolution, to which details are expected to be released in the coming days.

It wasn’t until recently that I considered certain tools to be forms of A.I. Plagiarism detection websites are A.I.; they go through the heavy lifting of comparing and contrasting submitted work with the previously published works already in circulation. Grammar checks, whether built into word processing programs or Grammarly add-ons, are also a form of A.I., checking in the blink of an eye for grammatical issues and stylistic ones. Upon the invention of calculators, there were plenty of people who pushed back on its use in school settings because it would enable students to simply punch in numbers for answers to math problems. Today, I imagine that an A.I.-produced academic essay containing original thought would likely pass the plagiarism detectors because an original thought (even if artificially created) would not be a match to the catalog of previously submitted work. For people like my former ghostwriting clients or my plagiarizing students, I imagine that a free service that would write an essay with minimal effort would be the go-to for anyone wishing to get a passing grade without the work.

For me, the blank page represents freedom of expression. The shuffling alphabet arranges and rearranges like my homemade phonics decks to teach Hazel reading to form new words. The elements of language, from letters, words, and parts of speech, create original ideas that moments before did not exist. Writing is a magical experience for me when I get to tap into the zone and set aside the craziness of whatever is going on in my day-to-day life. It recharges me and fulfills me spiritually and intellectually. For me, writing is not a job. It is passion and art. It is channeling a divine. It is exploration and discovery. For all that writing strives to do, what it ultimately fulfills for me, personally, is an ineffable satisfaction that can be described differently depending on what and why for that day, whether it’s a project, a poem, a journal entry, or even a nonfiction blog post.

So I reflect on how I incorporate A.I. in my life. I may not use A.I. for generating writing (nor do I have any plans to) but do I use A.I. generated content? I use Grammarly for grammar in my blog posts, book-length projects, queries, and proposals. In my continuing education, I brush up on my Spanish with a green owl on Duolingo that proudly promotes its usage of A.I. to personalize instruction for its users. I use Canva in many of my branding materials including my butterfly logo that resembles curly hair, other print and digital materials including reels, and blog promotions on social media. Wix is my website host and this blog’s layout design was created using a template that probably was A.I. generated. Maybe. I’m not sure if the template was created by a human being or not. With the inclusion of A.I. in the realm of writing, I recognize now that the imagery of A.I. illustrations, layout designs, and other forms of creative expression in commercial art have been going on with minimal objections outside of the graphic designers and commercial artists who have been professionally impacted.

Although I cannot imagine using A.I. for writing, I realize that I am a purveyor of other forms of A.I. content. I can recall early jobs post-college spending tedious hours cropping and snipping images to remove backgrounds in the early days of Photoshop from subjects for layout spreads; today, that work is obsolete given backgrounds on images can be removed in seconds instead of by hand, pixel by pixel. Although I am capable of creating the artwork and layouts entirely on my own, I don’t because time is scarce and that part feels like work. I don’t want to sully the pages of my website with ads even if it made it profitable. I don’t want to self-publish, especially now with A.I.’s ability to poach literary works with impunity. Whatever entrepreneurial spirit I once had as a teenage peddler of ghostwritten essays is long gone. That’s what makes the business side so difficult, the A.I. immersions in literary business, the constant changing of algorithms, trends, and relevancy that seem nonsensical to me and even industry experts admit to not understanding. Likewise, being a company of one (so to speak), I don’t have the manpower or the revenue stream to outsource the necessary platform-building components to get my foot in the door in the professional literary world. So I recognize what I failed to see before, simply how integrated society already is to A.I. and that I’m not in a position to completely disregard its potential even if I hold firmly to writing original content. Perhaps the many dystopian books that explore man versus technology as its driving conflict became prophetic, but then, maybe it’s all simpler than that. Perhaps work smarter not harder got too smart, smart enough to remove the human input from the equation of work.

My work is too valuable to me, my unpublished Horclux of novels, poems, and creative expressions compiled over decades is more valuable to me safely stowed away in hard drives than haphazardly thrown into the fray of industry transition and confusion. So to the many people who have asked me why I won’t self-publish, these are among my many reasons. I choose art over commercialization. I choose to produce human-generated writing and original thought over brainstorming with A.I. My response is an emphatic no-thank-you. Reading so many self-published authors who are struggling without recourse to A.I. copyright infringements is enough of a deterrent to say pass. I have waited this long for the right opportunity. I can wait longer and see how this all plays out while continuing to build my unpublished catalog.

I don’t believe anyone can stop A.I. from being integrated into education and professional settings at this point. It’s out. It’s here. To simply pretend that A.I. isn’t is to ignore the cataclysmic shifts akin to those that have overtaken blue-collar industries for decades with technology and outsourcing, all of which are now impacting white-collar workers.

Like Stephen King, I am watching with “dreadful fascination.”


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