I just returned from Book Summit at Web Summit, a massive conference in Lisbon where 70,000 nerds like me gathered to discuss tech, AI, the future of humanity . . . and yes, books.
As I sat through four days of discussions on AI and AGI—artificial general intelligence—one thing became clear to me: technology is not inherently good or bad. Yes, we can do both good and bad things with the technology. But technology, for all its sparkly potential, cannot replace human creativity.
Then there’s generative AI, an area of great fear in the writing and publishing world. This technology generates content, including writing and design. One panelist made the point that generative AI is great at finding the mean—to reaching the middle-ground summary of its broad range of input.
But generative AI cannot think. It does not have the human desire for excellence. It doesn’t have an internal drive for greatness. It cannot have an epiphany from a conversation or a moment at a bus stop that sparks an idea or an aha from reading a great article. It cannot put its heart and soul into its work. It cannot shed tears while writing or feel pain or elation or any of the things that make great writing great. And it cannot create new ideas, because generative AI is only the summation of existing ideas.
Most of us have had the experience of reading a social post, email, or article that is clearly AI generated. I don’t know about you, but when that happens, I feel frustrated. Like I’ve just engaged in an inauthentic interaction.
On the other hand, we’ve all read an article or book, or watched a reel or movie, that moved us deeply. That made us feel connected to ourselves, to the author, to the emotions within us.
Will AI replace writers?
“Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am,” feels truer than ever right now. Our complex thinking—our creativity—is part of what makes us human.
Do I think AI will replace rote writing? It already is. But I also expect to see new technology that will verify human work and a collective push for real content from real people.
Do I think AI will replace authors? No way. I think it can replace formulaic books. But it will never—and I can say never with confidence—replace the work of great writers. It will not replace the Anthony Doerrs or the Alice Walkers, because we need the human brain to create masterpieces.
The trouble with replacing rote writing is that it’s the development pathway to great writing. I got my start as an intern at an alumni magazine and moved into a regional publication, then a national one, where I was eventually promoted to executive editor. I then ghostwrote for a Nobel Prize winner for four years, edited dozens of books, and started writing more books. I would never have reached where I am today without those early rote assignments that helped me develop my skill set.
So will AI take over the world? I think there will be a surge forward, then a push back. I think great work will be more prized and that true artists will be even more highly valued. I hope—dear heavens, I hope—that books will continue to further humanity.