Understanding How AI Learns to Write
Unless you live in a cave – which is just as much of a lifestyle choice as a tent – you can’t have missed hearing how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will bring about the end of days – certainly, it’s going to be writing all the books we read, simply by ripping off the ones that went before. Many authors have expressed concern that their work is being used to ‘train’ these supercomputers that sit poised to steal our jobs.
AI has moved centre stage – despite having been around in our lives for years. It’s the engine driving search engines and grammar checkers. But generative AI has writers worried. Over the space of months, systems such as ChatGPT and Claude have become everyday tools. Even people as old as me know how to use them. Headlines constantly scream about how we’ll lose our jobs, our houses and our children to AI … because, let’s be honest when you’re writing headlines, bad news sells.
The rise of generative AI dragged these tools into the limelight, democratising the technology and making it more accessible to individuals and smaller companies, not just tech giants like Google or Amazon. This shift has worried writers. What the headlines tend to avoid is how they open up possibilities, offering tools that inspire and assist the writing process.
But what if they’re copying my books?
AI models (like ChatGPT) learn by analysing huge datasets – and this includes books (not just fiction), online articles and manuscripts. Their mission is to identify patterns in language use. These models develop an understanding of language patterns, grammar rules, and logical structures to form coherent, contextually appropriate sentences.
However, it’s crucial to recognise that – despite what you might read in certain forums – AI doesn’t replicate or plagiarise existing works. It learns the underlying principles of language construction, enabling it to generate new, coherent content that is distinct from its training data.
Just like a baby learns to speak. Or a child learns right from wrong through stories. They don’t go out and write stories for school loaded with those exact words – and even if they do, they don’t get published. When an author or playwright retells ‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘Macbeth’ with a modern twist, nobody screams that they’re guilty of plagiarism.
I’m not convinced
With great power comes great responsibility. The ethical considerations surrounding AI in creative domains cannot be overstated. Issues of authorship, copyright, and the originality of AI-generated content remain central to ongoing discussions. Generative AI is evolving, and I’ve detected increased emphasis on making AI more ethical, secure, and transparent.
Much as hack journalists want to tell you otherwise, AI isn’t out to replace creative writers. AI tools can handle mundane tasks, allowing writers to focus on the creative aspects of our work. Just like nobody thinks twice of using Grammarly and tidying up their deliberately imperfect prose, with the guardrails in place, a partnership between human and machine creativity can lead to innovative and efficient writing.
And yes, I do think writers need to be efficient – in an age where we have to write, edit and market our books – even when traditionally published. What wouldn’t I give for someone proficient in marketing when I’m sat before a blank screen screaming ‘what now’?
Know your enemy
The integration of AI into writing and other creative fields will continue to present both challenges and opportunities. It’s absolutely fair to voice concerns about its impact on learning, intellectual development and original thinking. But don’t jump on the next passing bandwagon and sign the next random open letter or petition, without taking time to understand if what it claims to stand against is true. In the right hands, and guided by the right ‘prompts’ from a writer who takes the time to understand how the technology works, AI can enhance our output and help us sell more books.
AI is coming and no matter how many burning sticks we wave in its face, it won’t disappear. As writers, it’s up to us to do what those before us did. Learn how to use technology to do things better. Be that the printing press, ebooks, audiobooks and now this. By embracing the available tools judiciously and creatively, writers can use them to enhance our craft and explore new horizons in storytelling.
And because it’s good to leave you with homework: Google ‘Prompt Engineering’ – let the AI you already trust (Google) teach you about the AI you don’t.
Coming next: Tips for writers on using AI responsibly by properly attributing any AI-generated text they incorporate into our work.