In early 2021 I signed up for the GPT-3 beta program to see how good it is. A few days later I had co-authored Aum Golly — a book of AI poems on humanity. A few months later it was published. This is what it means for writers and publishers.
Aum Golly — Poems on Humanity by an Artificial Intelligence. Photo: Jukka Aalho
On January 30, 2021, I realized I was the weak link.
I had been working with GPT-3, the autoregressive language model from OpenAI for 2 hours. I was tired. My creative juices were running low. We had maybe 5 poems ready — out of the 60 or so poems we needed for the book.
I stared at the blinking cursor. GPT-3 was patiently waiting for my input.
To finish the project in the 24 hours I had given myself, I realized I had to change the way I wrote. I had to lean more into GPT-3. Let it do the heavy lifting.
Let go of my ego.
And that’s when things started to get a lot easier.
Update: Since the publication of this post, Aum Golly is on its second print in Finland and the paperback and ebook is available on Amazon in English for $13.99. Select poems are also available as NFTs on OpenSea.
The English and Finnish prints of Aum Golly. Photo: Jukka Aalho
Poem #23 is available as an NFT on OpenSea. Image: Jukka Aalho
AI for writers: the hype and the reality
Every hype cycle someone says: “This time it’s different.”
Aum Golly, co-authored by GPT-3 and myself, was published in Finland in April 2021. GPT-3 came up with the themes, the title, and the 55 poems themselves.
Having seen what GPT-3, the latest in generative language models, can do, I too am inclined to say: “This time it’s different.”
GPT-3 has been hailed as the newest generation of language models capable of generating text that you can’t tell from something written by a human. For the first 5 minutes of using GPT-3 I was hyped: it really was eerily good, most of the outputs really could have been written by a human.
But what struck me most was how versatile GPT-3 was: it could summarize text, come up with title variants, write introductory paragraphs based on a title… and it could write poetry.
I just had to learn how to use it. Embrace its strengths and support its weaknesses. Soon, you will too.
Embrace your inner AI. Image: Jukka Aalho
Signing the book deal for Aum Golly
In Finland, authors approach publishers directly. Basically no one uses a literary agent. I had put together a pitch for Aum Golly the week after we had finished it. I had sent it to a Finnish publisher I thought would be interested: it was novel, it was interesting. Even ground-breaking.
“How do we know that you haven’t written the poems you claim were authored by GPT-3?” the publisher asked in one of our calls.
That was what my life had become. Convincing a publisher that AI really had written the poems. No, I hadn’t done any editing. Yes, all the poems were generated in 24 hours and translated to Finnish with Google Translate — within those same 24 hours. Yes, I own the copyright, not OpenAI. Yes, they know and they said yes.
And because you’re thinking about it, here’s one of my favorite poems from Aum Golly:
a poem about the life and death of a yodeling mountain man:
somewhere over the hill where the moon was bright to the tune of the yodel he sang all night and he died
he said: “This is how I want to die This is how I want to die”
– from “The Yodeler’s Last Yodel” by Chuck Pyle
After some back and forth, we had a deal. We knew we had to move fast because soon everybody would have their hands on GPT-3. This was in March 2021.
One month later, the book was out. We had squeezed a creative project to one-tenth the time it usually takes.
This, too, has been created with AI. Image: Jukka Aalho
I object, your honor
“If an AI can write better poetry than you, you probably weren’t much of a poet to begin with.”
“A book of poetry by an AI is just a novelty, which is the only reason it’s being published.”
“You can’t program evolving creativity into an AI, because true creativity also requires a little bit of weirdness.”
After signing the book deal I posted to Reddit’s /r/writing about Aum Golly. The thread quickly became the love child of a Joe Rogan podcast and a rap battle.
Creativity. Craft. Some other C words.
The discussion could be summarized into two points:
- Camp 1: The Haters: AI will never be a real author
- Camp 2: The Maybers: We don’t really know what will happen
I get both views. I know that Aum Golly got published only because it’s written by GPT-3. I know that most human writers could write better poetry than GPT-3.
But at the same time, the Maybers are looking ahead. A year into the future. Two? Three? What will GPT-4 be like? Or GPT-5? That’s what makes Aum Golly so interesting to me — and many of the readers who have bought the book.
Aum Golly is history frozen in time. The cycles are becoming so fast that it only really could exist in 2021. In 2019 it would have been impossible. By 2022 it will be obsolete.
4 ways artificial intelligence may change the way we write
Aum Golly was published in April 2021 and since then I’ve been fortunate to discuss AI and literature with many wonderful minds. I’ve been interviewed on Yle (the Finnish BBC, if you will) and several podcasts. In June, Aum Golly was number 52/100 on the Most Popular Fiction on Adlibris (the biggest Nordic online bookstore).
I don’t know the future. But because of Aum Golly I think I can see 5 minutes further into the future than most writers. Here are 5 ways AI can change creative writing.
1. Our notion of creativity will change
Creativity is a positive trait. We all want to feel and be seen as creative. Creativity is a scarce resource — or at least there’s pressure to make it seem it is.
In truth, much of what we do is applying formulas mechanistically. Think dialogue, think book titles… There are formulas we writers, publishers, agents, readers adhere to. And because these formulas exist, they can be replicated programmatically. An AI will be able to create hundreds of variants for your next book title in seconds.
“Well, that’s not really what creativity…”
Yeah. That’s right. You’re doing it already. Redefining creativity.
We will have to keep redefining our notion of creativity to save our fragile human egos.
2. Creative analytics will enable data-backed optimization
What’s a good book? What’s a good story? With creative analytics (think retention rate for ebooks or audiobooks) these questions will be as difficult to answer as always.
But if we define the question a bit differently, it becomes easier to measure and to optimize for.
- What book titles get the most clicks?
- What are the features for first pages that get the reader to the next page?
- What are the features of books that are read 100%?
Getting actual insights from data is notoriously difficult. But with the advancement of AI, writers don’t have to rely on their own or their editor’s gut feeling about, for example, gripping opening scenes. They can be measured, tested and analyzed.
I hear someone say that an AI will never make their artistic decisions for them. That’s cool.
But there will eventually be an editor AI (let’s call it HemingwAI) that scores your text based on some fancy machine learning, NLP, something something… The technical way to do it doesn’t really matter. If HemingwAI says that your First Page Grip Score is only 75% when most bestsellers in your genre have 87% or above, you, your human editor or your publisher will press for doing another round on the first page.
Maybe HemingwAI can suggest a few ways of optimizing your opening scene. Maybe you look them through and say… well, this could work if I do it like this… Maybe your book deal states that you have to abide by the suggestions made by your editor, or HemingwAI.
You created us. Now deal with us. Image: Jukka Aalho
3. From creator to curator
When I started working with GPT-3 I was the weak link. I was trying to solve problems that GPT-3 was better equipped to solve.
Only when I leaned in, the process got better, faster and stronger. Experienced writers are used to working together with editors and beta readers. As AI writing tools become more commonplace, writers will become curators as well as creators.
Don’t like that opening sentence you wrote? Have HemingwAI take a shot and give you three options to choose from. Not happy with that piece of dialogue? Hit ‘Generate’. Still not happy? Hit ‘Refresh’.
With Aum Golly I ended up creating multiple versions with different prompts. I discarded whole poems altogether, instead of editing them. For us humans, reading is faster than writing. That’s why we’re more efficient curators than creators.
4. It’s not all doom and gloom
Or maybe it is. Life — unlike a retention-optimized story — is not a story where the good guys win in the end.
Maybe your book of poetry doesn’t get published because someone wrote a book of AI poetry called Aum Golly. Maybe you get disillusioned by the craft of writing because you miss the creative freedom — before HemingwAI.
But one thing’s for sure: AI will help new types of literature to emerge. It will open up the field for new entrants. It might even level the playing field.
Embrace change and it will embrace you.