Sibyl Says

A friend, whom I’ll refer to as Sibyl here (after the Ancient Greek prophetess), wrote to me recently to say she’d just read my Mali book, How to Make an African Quilt, and loved it. In fact, she raved.

So I, behaving like many of us desperate-for-reviews authors do, suggested she might, please-please-please, put some of her nice comments into a short Amazon review. “Reviews seem to matter a lot,” I sheepishly told her, “reviews help to keep a book alive.”

The next thing I knew, Sibyl sent me a review. I was knocked over by the speed in which she’d written it and how well it was written. I hadn’t known that Sibyl was such an amazing writer! It was several long paragraphs of rapturous praise. I had to thank her right away.

But wait! How had she gotten some of the basic facts so wrong? Did she really read the book? (Does anyone read carefully anymore? I ask myself a lot these days.) The review she sent me claimed (why? for sympathy, for added drama?) I was from “humble beginnings in rural America.” In fact, I’m from a middle-class family in suburban New Jersey. And I’ve never claimed otherwise. 

Another example: It said my economic development project was in the West African country of Senegal. In fact, it was in Ségou, Mali (another African country altogether), which is clearly stated in the book’s subtitle: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Ségou, Mali.

So I wrote to Sibyl as soon as I could, thanking her for doing the review and complimenting her on her impressive writing skills, but pointing out the various factual errors that should be fixed before she sent it off to Amazon.

She responded gaily: She hadn’t written the review at all! She’d gone to ChatGPT to save time. A.I. had turned out this long and glowing review of my book for her in less than five seconds, she told me, excited by this new technology.

She suggested I could even use A.I. to write my weekly blogposts from now on: Just download a number of my previous posts into it so it would learn my writing style, then give it a topic and it would produce a first draft for me, “in a matter of seconds,” she enthused, adding, “The power of A.I. is phenomenal!”

“A.I. can create content,” she explained, “but it cannot create ideas and original content.”


(stock photo)

Up to this point Artificial Intelligence had been something rather remote to me. A.I. was out there, creeping closer by the day, it’s true, but it hadn’t touched me personally. I hadn’t been following its trajectory. This recent experience with Sibyl dramatically changed that for me. Sibyl seemed to me to be foretelling the future for all of us writers: A.I. is taking over.

Suddenly I felt the way horse-cart makers must have felt watching the first Model-T Ford rolling down Main Street: out of a job, out of a purpose, outta luck. I envisioned five decades of applying my best efforts to my chosen profession going up in smoke. Being replaced by a machine.

When it comes to computer technology, for me it always comes back to this indelible memory: As I recall it — and as I’ve replayed it in my mind a million times since — a science professor at Columbia, in one of his riveting lectures (this popular class, held in a huge indoor ampitheater, was affectionately known by my fellow Lit majors as, “Science for Poets”), announced that computers would one day take over the world. They would “replicate with mutations,” I remember him saying. Human beings would become their slaves — if they survived at all. At this last statement, he smiled wryly, but I felt sure he wasn’t kidding.

This man was not a science-fiction-writer-quack, he was a distinguished professor at Columbia University in the City of New York. This was the late ‘70s, over 45 years ago, and I’ve been running away from computers, gripping my humanity with these two all-too-human hands, ever since.

In fact, one of the many reasons I went off to Africa in the late-‘90s to serve in the Peace Corps in Gabon for two years, and then on my own in Mali for three years, was to go back in time, to a time when computers were not (yet) taking over. Today in Africa that would no longer be the case.

My friend Sibyl, like many forward-thinking people these days, is focused on the plus-sides of A.I. – the speed, the ease, the eloquence, the time-saving benefits. Sibyl sees into the future, and that future looks rosy to her.

For me, I’m getting ready to take down my horse-cart-maker shingle and devote my determinately human hands to, maybe, watercolor painting. We’ll see.

I surrender.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This fascinating, new New Yorker article is on the pros and cons of A.I., from the p.o.v. of those who work in the field:

39 thoughts on “Sibyl Says”

  1. Omg! Omg! I so connect with your comments about needing reviews but oh, what a story this is! Such a perfect example of how AI is so far from what some think it is and should do.

    I appreciate your art and your frustration but please, don’t stop writing.

  2. Oh my, Bonnie…what a first hand observation into the abilities, and yet, the terror of AI and all it can “impersonate” in our humanity. Hold on…it will be a wild ride ahead.

  3. I don’t think surrendering is the answer after all the AI did not get the facts correct. And really I’m pretty sure they’ll be after my job next as an artist and probably do a better job. However, that will not feed my soul and for me that’s the most important thing anymore. I’m going to continue doing what makes me happy and that is making art and if the machines can start doing it better yeah but I’m still going to do what I like doing. This was written without any AI help as you can tell because it poorly written.

    1. I applaud your wonderful rebellious spirit, dear Victoria! Brava! Maybe, though, if and when A.I. takes over the art world, you’ll have a change of heart. I hope that day never comes.

      1. Oh, I think AI was in art very early. There are so many ways that you can alter your paintings drawings other peoples work. If people wanna computer generated painting, they can have it. If they want a real one, They can buy one of mine because I have to keep working. It’s just part of my soul.

  4. Well, BonnieDear, if you’re surrendering, you’re doing it with style. Dehumanization was the outgrowth of the industrialization, and AI has taken that to a stratospheric level.

    I loved this line, speaking of your response to your Columbia professor’s prognostications: “This was the late ‘70s, over 45 years ago, and I’ve been running away from computers, gripping my humanity with these two all-too-human hands, ever since.”

    Knowing you as I do, I could not agree with that more. From bread and tarts to sewing and writing—cheap store-bought is not for you. xoxo

  5. Hopefully, pretty soon a technology will be developed to be able to tell consumers, and school teachers, etc. when something has been produced by AI or not. I envision on Amazon books and all written word articles and news, videos, speeches, etc that are online etc., they can be run through a technology (probably partially using AI ironically) to indicate the likelihood it was AI produced. Also copyrighting laws and regulations are going to need to get much more sophisticated immediately and in years to come.
    Authors may have both books they continue to write on their own and sell, and also books they feed a story line, characters, etc. into AI and let AI “write” books for them using their prior works, style, and everything ever written or said about them, and have the copyright to sell those books, too, with an AI produced symbol on them to let consumers. Or something like that. Even in the first kind of non-AI book, an author will now have AI to help them to do some pre-research before writing or fact checking (though as you mentioned AI can get facts wrong so AI research may still need to be double fact checked by humans).
    What I’m saying is I don’t think consumers inteterest in books and articles etc written by human authors and journalists will go away, I think AI may create not currently existing additional types of products, too. Will some people be out of their old job, probably, but how their skills can pivot has been the case ever since the industrial age began.
    Personally, I would like to hear an AI created “album” of songs Elvis Presley “might have” produced had he lived into his 60’s,, based on his lifelong body of work and how his voice might have continued to deepen with age, for example, by the legal estate of his family. However the legal side of that would work. Since many songwriters, his musicians and back up singers prior work will all be used by AI to create the new works, royalty issues will need to have a whole new area of legality.
    Change is constant, for better and for worse.
    Just a thought.

    1. Wow, Lyn! Your faithful comments on my blogposts — always deeply appreciated — are normally on the terse side. This subject of A.I. has opened the floodgates for you! 🙂 I appreciate (and am in awe of) your optimism about A.I. I hope you’re right. You might want to read the New Yorker article I give the link to. Even the experts disagree about its benefits to humanity. — BB

      1. Good point Bonnie. It was off the top of my head. I DO NEED to read the link you provided on what involved experts have to say on the matter. I will do that Thank you.

        1. Thanks, Lyn. Yes, it’s a long article but very worthwhile. I came away from it thinking, if the experts are so divided about the future of A.I., it’s no wonder that the rest of us are.

  6. Bonnie querida,
    Sí and no.
    I agree with some of the justified fears people have about AI, but it will be a long time before it replaces human (creative) writing. Right now, I am preparing a presentation to explain to new students who (like “Sibyl”) are dazzled by the new technology why they can’t use it to write their essays. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to spot an AI piece. The exclamation points! The glaring mistakes! The fake exuberance! You get it…
    Please, keep writing. AI is a great tool—I use it often to bounce ideas and for translations, but it is just that, a tool. No Al will ever replace la Bonnie and her wonderful, well documented and often funny posts.
    PS I will leave a review this week.

    1. Querida Te — I often wonder how college instructors are handling the A.I. issue with their students these days. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Yes, A.I. is a tool, but tools are often misused, verdad? — xx

  7. Dear, dear Bonnie,
    I recently reviewed your book and with the first sentence I worried, “oh, dear did i say something wrong?” But , no, “Sibyl is not me!

    I’ve been in despair about AI’s rapid take-over in recent months of just about every human communication medium we have–in fact, I even saw somewhere artwork by AI. As horrible as it was, I feared with all the tinkering the technocrats do, they just might get it to compete with the real stuff, at least minimally. Being both a writer and a painter/sculpter I dread that day.

    We must all put pressure on our Congress, to regulate this new “Inhuman” means of communication as Europe has done earlier and more effectively. Then like you I will pick up pen and brush and breath a sign of relief!

    1. Ah, no, dear Sher, “Sibyl”‘s A.I.-generated review never made it into Amazon, gracias a dios. 🙂 Yes, it’s all scary stuff, and the jury is still out, as they say. Has Europe managed to control it to some degree? That’s good news.

  8. Seems you struck a chord! AI is extremely powerful — but it has no morality, no empathy, no experience. The jury may be out but if we don’t do something soon, AI will BE the jury.

  9. It is events like this that require legislation that ALL items produced by AI be so marked, even if the human behind the AI production would choose otherwise. We have a serious problem with “truth.” I am delighted to read your very real words. Sorry that this happened to you, Ms. Black. Keep pouring out your wisdom. We are listening.

  10. The thing is, Pandora has escaped her box. For good or evil, the robots already walk amongst us. At the moment it seems pretty easy to spot a fake because AI generative writing sounds so generic and soulless. But very soon it will be able to fool even the experts. What frightens me the most is what the deep fakes will do to threaten and very possible destroy our fragile democracies. No one will trust anything they see or hear anymore. It’s a little hard to imagine the pros outweighing the cons at this moment. I’m with Bonnie. Let’s all go “Amish” and return to a place and time before industrialization.

  11. In the same way that we need information on our food packaging, ie., GMO or not GMO, farmraised or from the sea, we need the information on articles, legal documents, biographies, etc. telling us whether it’s by a human or AI. We must demand this as this experiment progresses. It will not be granted unless we speak up. Silence is compliance.

    1. Yes, but I wonder whether it can be that cut-and-dried. If, for example, a writer used do his/her research and a first draft then took it from there, was the end product by A.I. or a human? And how many are going to be honest about all this?

  12. I’m afraid Bonnie, I am lost for words. I think I have been sheltered from A.I but probably not for long, and I have a lot to think about as a result of your article.

  13. Don’t do it! I cling to your posts for emotional survival! (Add on water-coloring, maybe as illustrations for your next book)You are gifted and compassionate. I hope to gratefully shake your hand in person some fine day. You have been my lifeline, a shiny floating halo I cling to in the choppy tearful waters of White Male Supremacy in Port Townsend, WA. signed, a Fearful Feminist

    1. Wow, Jane! I’ve had to reread your comment four times to believe it. How kind of you to say such lovely, encouraging things. I often wonder who is “out there” reading my weekly posts and what effect (if any) they’re having. It’s heartening to me to know they’ve helped you in some way. Stay tuned for the next ones, which should explain my near-future plans… All best wishes, Bonnie

  14. Dear Bon,
    Your story horrifies me, but it does not surprise me. It has come to pass that people can generate false prose, pass it off as their own, and then admit to it proudly as if they have beaten the system. Literary ability is now in the hands of those who have never read a book in their lives and never will.
    AI generates content, but it does not generate human feelings. Perhaps that comes next. Sibyl’s use of AI is relatively benign. Wait until truth and lies are indistinguishable. What then?
    Last year, AI exploded into classrooms and changed education forever. Repeated experience reading it does develop an ability to recognize it, for now. One great virtue of reading is that it allows us to engage in discourse with another human mind and soul across the world and even across time, just as we all discourse weekly with you, Bonnie. Will that disappear too? Judging from the fact that all young people appear to have their closest relation with their phones, the results of AI do not look promising.

    1. Clearly, you get it, Paul dear. I, too, find it all so horrifying. But for those who’ve never written anything, I guess A.I. is a boon. Where is all this headed? I’m glad I don’t own a crystal ball. 🙁

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