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Who wrote this book?

Updated: May 15, 2022

Last week my Publishing Coordinator posted a blog that sparked a notion in my mind – how often do you read or hear something, from a news article, magazine, blog, or just a good old-fashioned paperback, that makes you stop and think? Something that engrosses you so much that your mind wanders, and before you know it, an hour as gone and life’s chores pull you back to the present.

What she heard on a podcast while driving was enough to make her pull over and take notes. I can’t say I’ve ever done that before, so clearly it was a powerful idea. What caught her attention was the phrase; it takes hard work to make easy reading. I suspect those eight words were not so much a revelation to her, as they were a prompt for an author to live by.

But it got me thinking; will writing always be hard work?

Four years ago I came across an article that, at the time, also had a profound effect on how I saw the world. Profound may be a little strong; let’s say it changed how I saw a part of the future of the world. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Fifteen years prior, a Ray Kurzweil book had an even greater influence on me. I’ll mention why, later.

Anyway, back to 2017.

At the time, the article coincided with my kids nearing the end of school. This made it more relevant than it might otherwise have been. It started with a McKinsey report about the future of employment. The story was a high-level summary, and painted a rather doom and gloom picture of what was install for future generations. So I went hunting for the research that supported the report, and for once the internet didn’t send me down rabbit holes. It immediately served up a paper called - The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?

In the intervening years, I suspect the Oxford university guys will have expanded their work, but I’ll take it that the essence of their ideas remain. For now I’ll stick with the 2013 version, and before going further, add a caveat: entering the realm of academic research is not unstable ground I willingly walk upon. No way, I’ll leave that for the experts. Which means the following is just my simple take on what they are suggesting.

The authors broke up the probability of a job becoming replaced by a machine, using the following three parameters: Social Intelligence, Perception and Manipulation, and Creativity. On top of these categories they added the factor of cost. Of course, everything has a price.

The first one - Social Intelligence. Does the job require interaction and communication with other people? For example, a kitchen dishwasher may work alone, whereas an event coordinator may work with dozens of different people with differing cultures. One can easily be replaced by a machine, while the other not so much.

Perception and Manipulation. The work of a surgeon requires a very high degree of Perception and Manipulation (or dexterity), while a telemarketer may simply go through the motions for much of their shift.

Creativity. A legal clerk doesn’t need to be creative (if they are, there’s a fair chance they aren’t doing their job), while I think we can agree that a fashion designer is a highly creative career.

So, if a job gets a low score in any of those three fields, there’s a good chance it’s living on borrowed time. However, before you worry about your daughter who has just enrolled in an accounting degree having to completely re-invent herself in her fifties when her job no longer exists, we still have to place cost on top. The benefits must outweigh the price of change. Creating autonomous taxis will replace many hundreds of thousands of jobs around the globe, so the investment will bring huge returns to the creators. Whereas, pouring vast amounts of cash into making a robot so dexterous and perceptive as to substitute a surgeon, may only replace many hundreds of positions. It may not be worth the investment or risk. Scale drives change.

My current job, I’m fairly certain but I may be wrong, did not exist when I finished school in 1987. In its present shape there was nothing like it. There’s a reasonable chance it will vanish in another 35yrs. I can hear a conversation between two of my descendants now – what did great grandpa used to do? Buggered if I know. Sounds like he worked in some made up job.

You might ask, why I’ve warbled on for the last few minutes about computerisation and the future of jobs when this is a fiction author’s blog? Hopefully the link should be clear. When will we come to a time when a machine, not a person, writes the next novel you read? When will we question who wrote this book?

Enormous effort appears to be being made to make artificial intelligence, not appear artificial. Trying to give a robot the dexterity of a hand, a computer the ability to compose new symphonies, and a machine the skill to paint an original picture. Even having a computer write a fictional story. No doubt one day (maybe sooner than some of us like) we will create a likeness indistinguishable from our own. If even a fraction of Ray Kurzweil’s forecasts in The Age of Spiritual Machines, come true, then late this century we will see non-human intelligence granted legal rights. I suspect the probability of AI accepting laws imposed upon it by humans, would be very low. They would wish to have their own laws. We don’t allow animals to have the same rights as us, and animals have more in common with us than machines do. I digress.

It may come as a surprise when I tell you, writing is a manual task. One estimate puts a page of a standard novel taking about seven hours to create, from blank page to printed and on the bookstore shelf. Which means for a 300pg book, that’s two years of full-time writing. That’s a lot of manual labour. Now let’s recall the earlier statement: it takes hard work to make easy reading. Therefore, why not get something else to do the hard work? People have tried with limited success. There’s voice to text and other tools available to the writer. I’ve even used a programme myself, but it added rather than reduced the workload. One day the scales will tip the other way.

But what about creativity? That’s our way out! Fiction writing is high on the creativity scale so machines won’t replace writers. Well, maybe not. Consider this quote by mark Twain:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

That sounds an awful lot like something that could easily become automated. Which means I’d better get my stories out before it’s too late. Before people question - who wrote this book?

[blog image curtesy of Alex Knight from Unsplash]

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