Will A Robot Take Your Writing Job?

The pandemic has accelerated automation in non-creative fields, but are creative jobs vulnerable, too?

Photo by Photos Hobby on Unsplash

Since the 1700s, when Luddites started smashing English looms, automation has been putting people out of work.

In the 20th century, automation took over manufacturing jobs, data entry jobs, manual computing jobs. Now, breakthroughs in “deep learning” have exponentially increased the number of jobs that can be automated. McKinsey estimates that, by 2030, as much as 30% of work will be done by machines, displacing almost 400 million workers.

If you’re entering the job market or considering a career change, you’re probably wondering whether your job will still be around 20 years from now.

AI is now being used to make pizza, trade stocks and operate call centers (much to the chagrin of anyone trying to get in contact with a service provider). Administrative jobs and even some legal tasks, like document review and contract generation, are increasingly being handled by machines.

But what about more creative jobs?

For a long time, people have touted the relative safety of “creative” professions. While computers are already better than humans at things like processing data, sensory perception, recall, and predictable physical motion, humans outpace computers in soft skills like empathy, unstructured problem-solving, and unpredictable physical movement.

But is that changing? As neural networks improve, AI software is being used to disrupt professions once considered automation-proof.

There are now AI actors, poets, and visual artists. Even influencers, whose professions are based almost solely on being “personable”, are having to compete against computerized competitors. Imma, a virtual influencer, has over 300,000 Instagram followers and has landed deals with brands like Celine.

Just this year, Open AI released GTP-3, a pre-trained language model that can be used to generate a wide range of texts ranging from emails to dialogue, and even memes.

There are other platforms that generate prose, often notoriously incoherent. But GPT-3 is different.

GPT-3 produces extremely high-quality prose. Just look at this op-ed from The Guardian, written by GPT-3 itself:

The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.

Look at that parallel structure. Look at those integrated quotes (ignore the wayward periods). I teach writing to middle and high schoolers and wish they could deliver this level of deliberate style and clear, concise prose. I wish I could write this well all the time.

This is not just words on a page or language generated simply to adhere to the grammar rules programmed into it. As Farhad Manjoo states in his New York Times op-ed, “How Do You Know a Human Wrote This”:

“GPT-3 is so good at aping human writing that it sometimes gave me chills. Not too long from now, your humble correspondent might be put out to pasture by a machine — and you might even miss me when I’m gone.”

So, yes, AI writers are coming, and soon.

So, will a robot take YOUR writing job?

Well that depends on the kind of writing you do. AI software might be more efficient than humans at developing SEO content or generating B2B emails (If you’re a Gmail user, you’ve noticed algorithms creeping into your responses already). So, in the future, platforms might be flooded by AI-created, SEO-optimized, targeted clickbait. Writers whose careers rely on sheer volume and formulaic writing might have difficulty competing with AI-generated work. In fact, some bots are writing clickbait headlines already.

Freelance sometimes feels like a hamster wheel: Medium articles espouse the joys of writing one or two or three articles a day, publishing every day, come rain or sleet, on four hours of sleep, after a 12-hour shift at a demanding corporate job.

But, whatever writing AI software produces, it will write it much faster than a human ever could.

Are freelance writers doomed to be like John Henry, working faster and faster, producing on a superhuman scale, racing against the machine — even winning, but at the cost of their lives, or, at least, the independent lives to which they aspired?

Well, here’s one glimmer of hope: GPT-3 struggles to write factually. So, as long as humans still value accuracy and truth telling (though the past four years have made me question whether they still do) there will be jobs for humans (at least until the bots get it right).

Another: advancements in AI may be slowing due to the extremely high cost of computing power. Automation replaces human labor when the cost of a machine is less than the wages of the workers it’s replacing. While GPT-3 is good, it won’t be able to completely replace humans until it is substantially improved, and that could take a lot of effort.

Improving the performance of an English-to-French machine-translation algorithm so that it only makes mistakes 10 percent of the time instead of the current rate of 50 percent, for example, would require an extraordinary increase in computational power — a billion billion times as much — if it were to rely on more computation power alone (Will Knight, “Prepare for Artificial Intelligence to Produce Less Wizardry”)

So in the short term, your job might be safe.

In fact, at least in the near future, AI is much more likely to benefit writers than to take their jobs. In-app editors like Medium’s might incorporate AI software that will supercharge your writing. Or, an app might reorganize your notes into cohesive paragraphs. Or a Chrome plug-in will use search tools to identify possible references based on keywords and automatically create hyperlinks in your stories. Or all three. As a bot who has digested a couple million Medium articles might say, “The possibilities are endless.”

So, how can you protect your writing career?

1. Write for yourself

There will always be a market for high-quality copywriting and clients who will pay big money for SEO-optimized prose. But the same clients who are abandoning quality freelancers for race-to-the-bottom job boards are the same ones who are going to switch to AI writers, if they turn out to be cheaper.

This goes for ghostwriting gigs and content mills as well. Of course, those hiring a ghostwriter to write their memoirs are still going to be looking for high-quality writing, and, possibly, the human interaction that goes along with dictating your life story to someone. But self-help e-books and Kindle Unlimited “pulp” fiction might be on the automating block.

Writing for yourself, however, is also not only much more satisfying than work-for-hire, but is also, hopefully, the kind of work that will help you build longevity and generate a following (see #2). Ultimately, the more authentic you your work is, the less likely it is to be replicable — by anyone or any bot. Developing a voice is part of developing your craft as a writer. Even now, in a sea of voices, it’s important to make yours stand out.

2. Interact with your audience; build a following

Building your audience now will help you when the glut of AI writers arrives. New steamy romance writers might not be able to compete with a bot that can churn out a 300-page book a day with passable prose that flawlessly adheres to the conventions of that particular niche. But, if you have a mailing list and a back catalog, you’ve got a leg up.

And while there are advances in AI language software, bots still make poor conversationalists. The more you interact with your audience the more your authenticity and humanity will show through.

3. Learn constantly

Language models are trained on enormous data sets full of text. From these texts it “learns” the patterns of language such that it can produce coherent prose. But the craft of writing is built on finding novel ways to express novel ideas.

Ideas are the heart of everything your write, and while AI-generated prose might take over, the ideas that structure it will be human, and they might be your own. In the future, expect a hybrid model of writing, where humans produce the ideas and software produces the prose.

4. Use AI tools when possible

As I said before, it’s likely that AI in the near future will be used, not to take over writing jobs, but to make writing easier. Thus, you’re not just competing against bots, you’re competing against every human writer using AI to aid their output. Refusing to take part in what will be the biggest technological advancement in Letters of the 21st century will put you decades behind in terms of output, market access and strategy. Can AI help you meet your daily writing goals? Can it help you develop headlines more quickly or give you a good foundation for your first draft?

The more we embrace AI tools, the more we will understand and respect the sheer complexity of human creativity, ingenuity, and adaptability.

And while the future looks uncertain, there’s still a place for us writers in it. Our roles may change, but for right now, keep writing while you still can.

Former lawyer, freelance writer, editor, and tutor. New New Yorker.

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