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Artificial intelligence offers to write your blog better, but doesn't


Call me Neil. A few years ago – okay, around 40 – with little or no money in my pocket and nothing in particular to interest me in business, I thought I’d write a little for the newspapers and that I would see the black part of the world. It’s a way I have of chasing the…

okay, enough this. If riffing on “Moby Dick” is a weird way to start my first column of 2023, stay with me. We will turn around.

No sooner had I finished my blog post for Monday than Facebook launched an ad for Jasper. “Write blog posts 10x faster using AI, without sacrificing quality,” he promised. “Create high-quality articles in seconds.”

“In seconds”?! And just as well? Well, sign me up! I clicked on the link and came to the site for “an app that uses AI to create any kind of content you need” according to the explainer video, where a nervous – older, tired – woman despairs of say something new about socks until Jasper, personified as a robot boyfriend, offered this line: “The perfect pair of socks is like a hug for your feet.”

“Damn, it’s good!” she marvels.

Is it? Hold that thought while I make sure readers who still have cash follow through.

“AI” stands for “artificial intelligence”. It’s the same circuitry that powers a calculator, but complicated enough to mimic human thinking, supposedly.

If you’re guessing AI is far from affecting everyday professional journalism, you haven’t watched Friday’s column on medical decisions closely. A full-service columnist, I write my headlines – without the aid of tools like Sassbook AI Headline Generator – and try to choose my own art, to perhaps delay the day I’m introduced to the pasture of the tragically deceased.

I searched Merlin, our Sun-Times photo database, for a retro black-and-white image of a doctor in a white coat. Finding nothing close, I looked at my own hospital photos. Busy and dark. I tried the public domain image banks at the Library of Congress and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nothing. Twenty minutes of fruitless searching. Then I sighed, hopped on Dall-E, the graphics AI provider, and created a free, usable image in about 10 seconds.

Did I have any scruples? Sure. Mainly that our excellent human staff photographers would notice me and quietly hate me in their hearts. But my directive is to do what is necessary to improve the final product. No reader seems to notice.

Would I ever use Jasper to create a happier sentence? Why not? I use a thesaurus if I can’t immediately put my finger on the right term. I use a dictionary. For the top of my column today, I tapped into my 1930 copy of “Moby Dick”, which is basically what AI does.

A lot of creativity is a wise borrowing. The lady in Jasper’s video might find “The perfect pair of socks is like a hug for your feet” an epiphany, but a real skeptical live reporter who plugs that phrase into Google finds plenty of shoe companies – Crocks, Bombas, UGG slippers – have used that exact phrase for years. What Jasper does is take what you’re looking for, scour the internet, vacuum up a bunch of old work, smash them together, and then spit them out at you.

A person could (and the fact – “tragically missing” is used by Nicholson Baker in his novel “The Mezzanine”). Graphic designers complain that while Dall-E doesn’t rip off any particular work, he forms a pastiche by processing millions of images and piecing together variations on a theme. It’s not new either: there was a guy in the Tribune who read a lot of Mike Royko columns, then spent the rest of his career regurgitating a pale facsimile of Royko’s style. Can we really blame technology for being as derivative as people? (Not to mention racist. The three doctors Dall-E served were all white; a problem with AI generators. In the beginning, the criminals Dall-E served were usually black.)

Is it important ? Maybe worrying about whether something is original or not is very 20th century to me. Why not use AI to erase your plagiarism fingerprints? Heck, why read anything when you can swipe on Instagram and spend 15 minutes or an hour or two watching snippets of “The Big Bang Theory” interspersed with amazing car crashes and Jenna Ortega dancing to “Goo Goo Muck”?

The answer, I think, is that being a human being is difficult, or at least challenging, and requires effort, imagination, and integrity. Or should. Given how bad humans are at being humans, often, despite 100,000 years of beta testing, we shouldn’t expect machines to approach anytime soon.

Until then, times change, and we change with them. I tried to sign up for Jasper, but they want $82 per month for “Everything in the starter plan + powerful tools for writing full content (like blog posts) with added control and flexibility” . I bet Jasper wrote that one. May be later. For now, Sassbook AI Headline Generator, like Dall-E, or your local drug dealer, offers free samples. I plugged the start of this column into Sassbook and it offered me the title: “Moby Dick: ‘Jasper’ Is a Bot That Makes Blog Posts 10x Faster.” Totally wrong.

I bet I can find something much better, and as long as that’s true, at least I have a frayed thread of job security to hang on to. As for “Moby Dick,” it’s a pretty good book, despite a fixation on whaling and nothing on Jasper. I recommend reading it while people, you know, are still reading stuff.



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