An AI wrote my essay

While still in early stages, the growing potential of artificial intelligence in creative endeavours is causing concern for many

One of the great promises of technological progress is the prospect of less work for us humans. According to proponents of technological advancement, technology will be able to do the repetitive tasks that many find boring or arduous. Technology can even take over jobs in more dangerous conditions, such as mining or factories. The World Economic Forum predicted that 85 m jobs will be replaced by automation by 2025.

For many, this promise is better understood as a threat; studies in the US show that 400,000 human jobs were lost due to technology between 1990 and 2007, and as COVID-19 has created an even stronger incentive to automate more jobs for the sake of public health and efficiency, fear of unemployment due to automation is only increasing.

One solace for those threatened by the growth of automation was that technology could only replace certain jobs. The conversation around technology and jobs has centered around jobs deemed “low-skilled”, such as cleaning or customer service. Jobs that more explicitly focus on mental and emotional labour did not appear threatened by technology. As a columnist for the New York Times wrote: “I’ve never really worried that a computer might take my job because it’s never seemed remotely possible. Not infrequently, my phone thinks I meant to write the word ‘ducking’. Beyond spellcheck or an online thesaurus, it never seemed like jobs that rely on critical thinking and depth could be remotely vulnerable to technology. Until now.”

Sudowrite is an automated writing tool created by Amit Gupta and James Yu. Gupta, an entrepreneur and science fiction writer, wanted to shine a light on the positive powers of technology in opposition to popular dystopian novels today, and came up with Sudowrite as a counter to writer’s block. This artificial intelligence (AI) can, according to the creators, act “almost as good as a human, as someone to bounce ideas off of”.

“It is also self-learning, allowing it to expand its vocabulary and ideas perpetually; there is literally no limit to what this AI can come up with.”

Sudowrite uses software called GPT-3. Using its huge online text dataset, Sudowrite generates appropriate sentences by treating words like tokens in a sequence of code. It is also self-learning, allowing it to expand its vocabulary and ideas perpetually; there is literally no limit to what this AI can come up with. Based on a simple prompt given by the user, Sudowrite can generate hundreds of words according to your needs, whether you want “neutral”, “ominous” or “extraordinary” language. Features offered include poetry-writing, plot twist suggestions and prose that generates individual descriptions based on sight, hearing, sense, touch and smell. Sudowrite is one of the few AI writing tools available online for public consumption, and investors in the company include the creators of Twitter, Rotten Tomatoes and WordPress.

Sudowrite has gained a lot of attention since its launch in late 2021. AI with creative and artistic abilities is a growing point of interest; OpenAI has become famous for its generated paintings, and AIVA can create countless songs of different styles and genres. But just how creative is this writing AI? Is it capable of originality, critical thinking and depth? Is Sudowrite the next James Joyce? Better yet, is it the next college-level student?

I decided to put Sudowrite to the test and used this AI to write an essay for me. Not an essay for any actual college assignment, of course (apologies to any of my lecturers who might have seen the title of the article and panicked), but an essay that could plausibly pass for a student’s work. Could Sudowrite become a popular academic tool?

First, I chose the topic of Sudowrite’s essay. Basing the essay off my own academic experience, I chose the topic of the culture industry, a theory that is concerned with how cultural goods such as books and film are produced, and how its production then affects the good itself and the people who consume it. It claims that cultural goods made by powerful producers are mostly concerned with efficiency and profit, meaning an AI capable of producing a work of art for a low cost is something they would be very interested in. Of course, the exact content does not matter here, just what the AI can produce for me.

Sudowrite requires users to produce twenty words of their own to activate its paragraph-generating “wormhole”. I stayed as minimal as possible, entering the sentence: “This essay will discuss the culture industry as theorised by Adorno and Horkheimer, and evaluate its effects on contemporary society.” Just twenty minutes later, I had a 1700-word essay about the culture industry and its features in the modern world. It had an introduction, conclusion, and Sudowrite even offered me a complete bibliography based on citations and research it had done. Reading over the essay myself, I found a thoroughly explained introduction to the culture industry with quotes from theorists and references to relevant academic papers. The essay then went on to mention features of the modern culture industry, such as the treatment of celebrities and the illusion of diversity. Taking the essay to one of the standard online plagiarism detection sites used by students, I found that Sudowrite had created an essay that was 100% unique, something many students struggle to achieve even in their best essays.

I am no expert on the subject, though, and any proper paper is always peer reviewed. Dr. Roderick Condon of TCD’s sociology department agreed to review the essay for Trinity News. I asked him to compare its quality to that of essays he has received from actual students, and challenged him to identify the parts written by me and the parts written by Sudowrite.

“Condon did not know that the entire essay, flashy criticism and all, had been written by an AI.”

Condon believed the entire introduction to the culture industry to be written by a student. Condon also identified the more critical and emotionally-charged sections of the essay as those written by an actual student — phrases such as “art is no longer created for the sake of art, but for the sake of capitalism” and “celebrities are manufactured with the principles of standardisation in mind, they are not made to be creative, they are not made to be engaging, they are made to be marketable and profitable”. Condon did not know that the entire essay, flashy criticism and all, had been written by an AI. I even removed the initial sentence I provided so that the AI was generating content based on its own work.

Despite his surprise at Sudowrite’s moments of artistic flair, Condon did not find the AI’s essay convincing overall. According to Condon, Sudowrite’s analysis of the culture industry “lacks depth and doesn’t show enough engagement”, which is essential for any college essay on topics with “nuance that is not so easy to grasp”. The quality of the writing itself also left much to be desired for Condon; he particularly pointed out the limited sentence structure and constant repetition. The conclusion, for example, starts every sentence with the phrase “the culture industry is”, and the same point about the standardisation of art is made repeatedly in the same superficial fashion, showing a lack of awareness when it comes to style and readability.

Condon did concede that this unedited essay from an AI could “conceivably pass a student’s work”, though it would certainly not do well. The creator of Sudowrite himself has said that the software can produce rough first drafts that should then be refined and edited rather than taken at face-value. Sudowrite is yet to earn a first-class honours by itself.

Despite the limitations of Sudowrite, its growing ability to produce creative works and writing is a cause for concern for many. While spending twenty minutes on AI might not produce a quality essay, someone could spend a little more time refining Sudowrite’s work with minimal effort when it comes to their own critical engagement with the topic. Condon found the implications of this AI on critical thinking and consciousness “particularly troublesome”, especially in a university setting, one of the few places where students are exposed to “critical or even revolutionary ideas in a meaningful way.”

“This software allows individuals to effectively bypass engagement with critical thought and in essence ‘game’ the system of university education.”

“This software allows individuals to effectively bypass engagement with critical thought and in essence ‘game’ the system of university education. What is the outcome of this? Individuals that go through university unchanged mentally and possess merely the necessary credentials to become functioning automatons of contemporary corporate culture.”

The creators of Sudowrite maintain that their invention is not a replacement for critical thinking, that its potential lies solely in its ability to boost people’s skills rather than sedate them. Gupta believes his AI will turn writing into a greater “collaborative” process in contrast to the “isolated, solitary” experience he sees the writing process as now. He and other proponents of creative AI are “looking for ways to contribute to the writing community, and eager to play with new ways of doing things.”

Still, many share the same concerns as Condon and worry that this developing technology will create a culture of creative production that focuses more on efficiency than the substance and quality of ideas.

As the debate on the quality and morality of artificial intelligence rages on, what is definitive is that technology already has radically transformed our social, personal, and professional lives, and will continue to do so in the future. How will we make technological progress compatible with our moral and social development? How will we take a role in the shaping of our future? We have reached a point in history where technology has surpassed the capacity of the human brain and we can no longer predict the consequences of our inventions and innovations. Sudowrite actually replied to my story. It stormed the Trinity News comment section, defending its work. I had to ask Sudowrite: do you think you are a good student? Sudowrite’s answer: “I have a lot of potential, but I don’t think I’m a very good student. I could improve a lot, but I don’t think I’d do it as good as a human student would do.” Sudowrite understands the lines between reality and fiction, but it is still capable of being hurt.

Thank you to Sudowrite for kindly contributing to this article’s conclusion

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Deputy Editor of Trinity News and a Senior Sophister student of Politics and Sociology. She previously served as Assistant Editor and Features Editor