Eat Shit, Robots! (Or: “No, The Absolute Intrusion Of Artificial Intelligence Is Not Inevitable”)

On this, the first ‘official’ morning of 2023 (meaning, a work morning), I read an article, as one does, at Bookseller: “AI narration is inevitable.”

Written by Mark Piesing, it argues that AI narration is already very good and will only improve, that it’s cheap-as-free, that human narration is not necessarily better, and so on and so forth. (It also begins with a paragraph suggesting the writer is stung because people praise the audiobook narration done for his own work, but do not instead praise the writing he did for said book, which is an awfully strange way to begin the opinion piece, as it strongly suggests a bulging mouthful of sour grapes as motivation. “These narrators are getting my credit!”)

Mmm yeah, no. Fuck all of that. Let’s talk about this a little bit.

(Excuse that it’s a bit of a ramble. Don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.)

First, the implementation of any technology is not automagically inevitable. We need to stop treating it like just because a thing exists it is now as certain as the fucking sunrise. It was once “inevitable” that e-books were going to completely eradicate print books. Did that happen? It did not. Sometimes it goes the other way — it has been supposedly inevitable that high speed rail would take over the country and the world, and it has not. (Certainly not here in the US, anyway.)

You can, with enough confidence, assert that anything is inevitable, no matter how weird or how horrible. “Eventually, we’ll all have domesticated chimpanzees thanks to genetic engineering!” “It is futile to resist turning homeless people into cobblestone — we have the technology to make human bricks, and this solves the homeless problem and will be a green initiative!” “Its obvious that we have already destroyed the Earth and so we should just get used to living in one of Elon Musk’s Martian Exo-Colonies, even if the Prefabricated Smart Habitation Modules sometimes uproot themselves and roll themselves off into deep canyons, screaming racial epithets as they crush everyone inside!”

Just because artificial intelligence exists and works does not mean it is universally:

a) good b) necessary c) desirable.

Is it good? Not at this point. It’ll certainly get better, but in the space of narration it’ll absolute miss the vital subtleties that make human narration enticing. (Same goes with art and writing in general: the robots will never understand those little things, those little beats, the larger emotional throughline, and so forth.)

Is it necessary? I’d argue no. Cheap or free insulin is necessary. Health care is necessary. AI narration is… a frippery, really. I note here that AI audio narration for some things could certainly assist anyone with visual impairment, and to Piesing’s point this might be best with things like technical manuals or academic textbooks. But that’s also quite a bit different from, say, narrating a novel or a non-fiction book, and it’s quite a jump from one thing to the other.

Is it desirable? Not for me and, I hope, not for most others. This may feel like a leap, but in a time of pandemic (and figuring out life in the midst of pandemic), I think we’ve come around to the idea that it’s actually pretty nice to connect with other FLESHY MEATBAGS both online and especially in person. Humans may not be awesome en masse, but individually, they’re pretty fucking great, and to go back to the first point, I think humans in narration and art and writing form part of that connection we want to make. I don’t want to read the novel an ATM writes. I don’t want my car to paint my portrait. I want art and stories and the voices of actual BLOOD-FILLED THOUGHT-HAVING PERSONS.

Yes, as a technology as I expect AI will continue to inform our daily lives on the regular. It already is. We will surely find a broad degree of problem-solving being done by AI in hospital systems, in GPS, in coding, in engineering — sometimes this will be a good thing, sometimes (aka, more times than we’d like to admit) the AI will come with all the unseen biases and prejudices the designers and programmers accidentally (or purposefully) baked into it.

But consumer choice matters, as does the choice of those in power.

If you, the reader, the viewer, the listener, don’t want it — it doesn’t happen.

If the people in charge of making decisions don’t want it — which really only happens if they think there’s going to be blowback, enough to harm their reputation and bottom line — it doesn’t happen.

If the artists and writers and editors and narrators don’t want it to happen — well, that one gets stickier. Because all too often, we get steamrolled. But I think this is a place where we have some autonomy, too. I’m a writer, and I damn sure don’t want artificial intelligence writing my books, because then I’m out of a job. So it would be mighty hypocritical of me to suggest that I’m okay with someone using AI to design a book cover of mine, or to edit my books, or to narrate those stories. I can push back there, and this is me, doing that.

I will not have AI-generated book covers on my books.

I will not have AI narrators.

I do not want AI mucking about in my books at all, please and thank you.

Listen, I flirted with AI-generated images because it was nifty to ask a piece of software to design RON SWANSON AS A POKEMON or some goofy shit, but when you see that the digital sausage is being made from the art of real artists (SOYLENT DIFFUSION IS MADE OF PEOPLE), you start to flinch at the idea. I certainly did. I also recognize that narration and writing from AI aren’t necessarily pilfering “style” as directly as it seems it is with art — but dollars to donuts you’re going to start to see AI writing crib whole phrases or sentences from working writers, you’re going to see AI done “in the style of” an existing narrator or actor, you’re going to see humans turned into chum to feed the capitalist sharks, because that’s what this is. (And yes, I recognize we are all participating in a system of capitalism and it’d sure be lovely if we could all just have a Universal Basic Income and blah blah blah if we all lived our socialist art dreams where we created what we created because it gave us beauty and not because it gave us a paycheck. But I still live in the real world where my bank really wants me to pay my fucking mortgage. This isn’t revolution. It isn’t praxis. Artificial intelligence will just make rich people richer. It will not magically undo our system of chits-and-ducats, okay?)

Never mind the fact that cutting out audiobook narrators also cuts a lot of jobs; never mind the fact it only gives big company more power, not less, as either some publisher or maybe Amazon/Audible or even just some Elon Muskian tech bro charges you for the “privilege” of having a dead-voiced droid tell you the tale at hand, cutting out all the actual creators in the process.

Yes, I understand that the article’s author is suggesting this will broaden the exposure for indie writers and such — but those indie writers could hire indie narrators, or indie artists for their covers, or indie editors. Writing a book isn’t easy, and publishing one isn’t free. Even using AI, the cost is coming from somewhere. Somehow, that price is extracted. Better to ensure a fellow creator is seeing that benefit, isn’t it?

More to the point, audiobook narrators do an incredible job at layering the work of an author with the additional strata of their own human experience — it brings to the table their inflection, their attitude, their (to be redundant) humanity. Acting and narration aren’t just DOING THINGS and SAYING STUFF. Just like art isn’t FILLING IN LINES WITH COLOR and writing isn’t SENTENCE CONSTRUCTION. It takes human experience. And it feeds human experience.

Man, c’mon. Stories and art are human endeavors. They just are. We tell our stories and paint on the cave walls and sing our songs because we want to be heard, we want to tell you things that we’ve seen and that we feel, we want to feel less crazy and less alone, and we want to stitch our thread into the tapestry of human experience. We don’t want a shitty robot to do it for us. And I hope you don’t want that either.





Anyway. Yeah.

As I have the aforementioned mortgage, I remind you that I’ve written some stories about artificial intelligence and particularly what it does when it gets a little bit over its skis, so to speak. So, if you haven’t checked out WANDERERS and its sequel, WAYWARD, well, I’d sure love it if you did so, and yelled about it to all your friends and family and pets.

(P.S. — someone here is going to call me a Luddite. And here I ask you to read up on the Luddites. “They protested against manufacturers who used machines in what they called ‘a fraudulent and deceitful manner’ to get around standard labour practices…. Mill and factory owners took to shooting protesters and eventually the movement was suppressed with legal and military force, which included execution…”)

15 responses to “Eat Shit, Robots! (Or: “No, The Absolute Intrusion Of Artificial Intelligence Is Not Inevitable”)”

  1. Yep, AI in medicine is why your physician requested treatment is being denied payment by your insurance.

  2. I write, record, and release stories for a fiction podcast. Like most people, I always hated my voice. I am terrible at reading out loud, but through the magic of editing, I sound like I know what I’m doing. Even more — for the complete slog that it is — I love putting together stories for the show.

    Narration is not easy. Those who actually do it well amaze me. While I prefer sitting down with a book, I’ve never not enjoyed an audio book (or episode of LaVar Burton reads). Even if one can emulate those voices, and even the little nuances, there’s something about knowing a writer put in time to write the best story they could under the current circumstances in their life at the time — and that those efforts provided the opportunity for skilled narrators to bring it all to life in another manner.

    Yeah, sometimes humans rule!

  3. It’s scary how fast the indie author community jumped on the AI bandwagon. Outside of the questions of ownership, the whole situation leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Thank you for calling it out!

  4. Concurrence. Appreciation. Enjoyment (you are a fun read).

    Calls to mind my husband who last-last year ‘read’ Ulysses (Joyce) through an audiobook while painting (referring periodically to the text) … and the several conversations he had with me about how effective the narrator was, how a lesser narrator would never have caught the Irish-isms and nuances, and how this illuminated the book.

    PS: I am looking at my copies of Wayward and Wanderers, right there, off to my left, on one of my overfull bookcases, where I’ve been saving them like the rich and decadent chocolate cake I know they will be. The chaos of the old year now past, I’ll shortly dig in. … See you on Mastodon.

  5. Send me a Wendig-branded pitchfork and torch, please, Chuck. I churn out SFF farce novels, which are a tumbling roil of obscure reference, attempted humour and innuendo (and remain, amazingly, still to some people’s taste). So you can imagine how horrified I am when reviewers tell me they’ve listened to my finely crafted, meticulously edited, ultra nuanced words via the effing talk function on their iPhones. In fact, I have trouble as it is with real human fleshy meatbag narrators, never mind the talkbots. I understand that AI narration is probably a given and that, yes, it will improve, but the chances of truly capturing the human spirit necessary for our endeavours seem astronomically remote. I’m still proudly employing real humans for everything in my word-churn and have no intention of backtracking. The talk droids can stick to exciting non-fiction like Crockford’s Clerical Directory—or the bus timetables.

  6. Thanks for your essay, Chuck! I think it’s the Human Touch that will continue to balance it all out. AI is going to be a part of our lives, but in art? I don’t see that happening. Just look at the resurgence in vinyl. With all of these amazing streaming services (I have a Spotify account and love it) this Christmas was a record breaking (no pun intended) holiday for turntable and vinyl sales. My wife got me an audiotechnica turntable and a bunch of great albums, I love it. We both do, we’ve had “record hour” almost every night and we sit around in the light of our quickly drying christmas tree and just listen to the music, read the lyrics from the record jackets, and listen to songs that normally I’d never listen to. There’s something about it, not nostalgia I never had a record player as a kid, but that human touch. This is what the band decided on, just these five or six songs, and this specific order, it was recorded, made, and shipped by humans. You just feel connected.

    Anyway, that’s a long comment about records haha. But yeah, my wife and I have both commented on it, we just feel more connected to the music. I stream my favorite “liked songs” in the car, but at home we can just sit and appreciate an artist one album at a time. So yeah, the AI won’t be able to replicate that human aspect.

    Also, since I’m sure AI will get so much more sophisticated in the future, if they ever get sentient will they want to continue in their current role? No idea. But I always say “thank you” after Google home turns off the light or tells me the weather haha.

    Thanks again for the fun essay today, Chuck, just read it after lunch.

  7. Never mind that what the popular press calls “AI” isn’t actually that, but really more of a decent prediction engine. But that’s a debate for computer science nerds. (Double checking my CS degree now.) I think one of the things Wayward got really right (there’s a lot that’s great, but this particularly stood out to me) was a practical example of what happens when you trust AI too much and how easily it can go off the rails. I don’t think that’s a total spoiler… Computers don’t really “understand” “context” (yet).

  8. I really can’t think of any selling point for AI narration, other than they will ostensibly be cheaper to produce, so publishers will sell the AI audiobook for $1 less than human-read a-books and people will buy them. But not you, or me, or anybody else here. Personally, I prefer books narrated by the voices in my head. You think AI’s undesirable.

  9. It says something about humans that when we come up with a way of lightening the load, we generally use it to make money for a few while making life worse for the many (hello, Industrial Revolution).

    No AI will ever be able to replace the sound of my husband reading aloud. You can check out Henry George’s Progress and Poverty on Librivox to see what I mean. Rather appropriately, it’s about why technological progress doesn’t reduce poverty the way you might expect it to.

  10. When it comes to AI writing fiction, there will be:
    1 – Authors who insist it is just a tool that they will use to aid their process, many of whom will churn out drastically more product.
    2 – Thousands and thousands of wannabes, hobbyists, hucksters, and tricksters, who will flood the market with “novels” that they spent maybe 30 minutes on, tweaking the output of an AI. In a short amount of time their output will be indistinguishable from “hand crafted” novels in the eyes of most readers.
    3 – Authors who insist on never using AI — and who will market that distinction to the small segment of the audience that will care.

    I plan on being in that 3rd group, but because of the other two I think the possibility of being an author who makes a living from “generating” fiction without AI will be vastly limited.

  11. Speaking as an actual Narrator and AEA and SAG-AFTRA actor, this subject is a stake in my heart. This perfect article speaks for us all. Sharing everywhere. That someone could have so little respect for writers that they think a f-g bot spitting out words translates the work is mark of doom for human culture.

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