When I began this article, it did cross my mind that I could have gotten Chat GPT to write the piece about itself. While it was busy piecing together a lyrical 800 words on its valuable contribution to the literary world, I could go out for a coffee and a muffin. So pervasive is the use of AI now that human effort, in most creative endeavours, can be easily delegated to some tool or the other that handles it better, more comprehensively and with far more surprising results.
I have been a worrier of intrusive technology since my school days, when pencils were sharpened using a simple blade. As soon as the pencil sharpener appeared as an appliance in the geometry box, I knew this was the end of life as we knew it. From the pencil sharpener to Chat GPT is a small step, barely more than half a century old. But it does signify a deeply disturbing trend that has now managed to defeat and replace human imagination in storytelling, writing, art, poetry, even architecture. And it has done it in a way that makes human beings look slow-witted, flawed and lacking both drive and imagination. Moreover, it has done away with the pencil and the sharpener altogether.
Last week I asked ChatGPT to write a short story that involved three people who go on a weekend trip to Mussoorie; it included an accountant, his wife, and their friend, a geography teacher from the local school. My prompt gave clues to ChatGPT about their relationships, described details of their very ordinary lives, and additionally asked that the story involve a murder, a ransom demand, a kidnapping, the recovery of a dead body from the trunk of a car, and a corrupt police inspector. The idea was to give ChatGPT such ordinary day-to-day characters and situatioms, that the chance of creating a plausible crime thriller was negligible.
Yet the end result was truly surprising. The narrative that eventually emerged was so imaginatively structured, the criminal turn of events staged with such remarkable realism, it would require a fiction writer several drafts and multiple rewrites to come close to assembling such an interwoven narrative. For myself, an architect with no real experience of words and fiction, it would be near impossible. All I had done was feed enough information to keep it all plausible and detailed. I thought I might as well send it for consideration to Netflix.
The range of ideas now being produced by AI in art, writing, design and architecture is enough to make you rethink. Poetry is spewed out with the mere command, ‘Please write an optimistic poem of four stanzas in the style of Wordsworth using the words – tree, waterfall, stream, pasture, condominium, fast-food and spacecraft.’ Wordsworth for the modern age. And of course, the ever so popular request, ‘make my selfies into paintings by Leonardo da Vinci’. A 3-D picture AI can render a building in any style. ‘Make the Empire State Building as if designed like a Rajasthani Haveli; convert the Taj Mahal into a Hindu temple.’ Without fuss, different options are placed on the screen before you.
Does this really mean that AI has killed all creative impulse? The AI used to produce such work is not just a collation of physical data, but a masterly repackaging of aesthetic experience. Wordsworth, Frank Lloyd Wright, Roald Dahl, da Vinci and millions of others condensed into a nano chip, and squeezed out like toothpaste, when required in whatever recipe or form. A design app now allows a three dimensional mapping of a building site, with rocky outcrops, tree locations, and soil conditions to be fed with the type and scale of building required, and out come five possible layouts and what they would look like from multiple angles and vantage points.
Are the very personal acts of writing, drawing, design or building now hanging on a precipice waiting for the final push into redundancy? The unfortunate tragedy of AI in the creative arts is not just the posing of glaringly wrong situations, but in not asking the right questions. ‘AI please design me a four storey shopping mall on three acres in Lutyens Delhi, using elements from the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Bahai Temple, but build the structure in steel and glass only’. Like a robot doing extractions from history and assembling them in a new location, the architecture that emerges is a Disneyesque reconstruction, as much fantasy as outright kitsch, as much innovation as complete garbage, waiting not for the critic, but the wrecking ball. If AI were truly intelligent it would patently refuse such a request. Or, given that it has ingested so much other socially relevant data, it may suggest, ‘Forget the mall. Why not build a public hospital?’