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Open for Debate

Truth, fiction and LLMs

10 June 2024

The trope of the working novelist isolated for months at a time, hunched over a desk with yellow stained and repetitively strained fingers clacking away on a keyboard is no more. Today’s author needs only a few spare hours, a title, a vague plot, an internet connection and a subscription to an LLM fine-tuned for fiction generation. Readied with that you could churn out a coherent Ulysses-length volume in the time it takes to drink a nero and walk around Trieste on a James Joyce walking tour. So goes the hype anyway.

Many of us are familiar by now with LLMs as linguistic entities in our world. Perhaps through infuriating encounters with corporate customer service bots or by asking silly questions of ChatGPT, Gemini, or Claude. And now if you’re eager to compose your debut novel, then perhaps Sudowrite or NovelAI or ShortlyAI are the LLMs for you.

Whatever one might think of the literary quality of the output of these applications, there is no doubt the speed and ease with which prose can be generated is staggering. For those of us who have idly imagined writing a novel, it is tempting to delve further into a technology that allows a user to enter a few plot details, the names, traits, tone of voice and arcs of the protagonists and then pressing a button to bypass the painstaking process of actually writing some chapters. If you know where to start your chapter, but not where to go, then it’s possible to write a short sentence and click on a button to expand it. If you like the idea in a section but not the writing, then click a button and a rewrite will be generated in seconds. There are even buttons to click to provide descriptions of sounds, smells, sights etc… if the descriptive aspect to writing is not awakening the muse. Taken to its most extreme, a user can even merely place a cursor at the end of some text, click “write”, and the programme will generate another block of text. If you wish, this could be done ad infinitum and so the overseeing human novelist is barely required.

This isn’t entirely new, those old enough to remember back to 2018 might recall a minor news story of the novel 1 the Road created by Ross Goodwin using a car, a camera, a GPS and a microphone plugged into his laptop. Using inputs from the sensors fed through a neural network and re-tracing the route of Jack Kerouac’s famous road trip that became the basis for his 1957 On the Road, Goodwin’s laptop printed out a novel on receipt paper.

With AI writing technology now widely available there are questions from the point of view of authors as to what their role is in the current world. We’ve seen hints of what might be to come in other arts. In March 2023 Boris Eldagsen won the Sony World Photography Award with an image generated using DALL-E 2 titled ‘The Electrician.’ Around the same time a largely-AI generated viral hit emerged titled “Heart on my Sleeve.” This was created by TikTok user Ghostwriter977 with an AI called ‘so vits svc’ replicating the vocals of Canadian artists Drake and The Weeknd. AI generated art is already around us and any Turing Test-type questions about artificial art look wholly redundant.

And while questions about what happens to artists and authors in an age of AI are important, there is another angle to this we should pay attention to. In particular, we need to think about what this all means for our engagement with art and literature. Indeed it seems that this point in the development of generative technology is precisely the right time for us to reflect on the art we enjoy and what it is we’re doing when we engage with it.

Philosophers have long been interested in the relationship of truth to fiction. Sometimes this is through consideration of what it is for something to be true in a fiction, but there’s also a distinct yet related set of questions as to what it is to find truth through fiction. Now a lot can be said about this distinction, but when thinking about LLM generated fiction, we can also think the notion of truth and fiction quite generally.

The very idea that literature can provide us with access to truths goes back at least as far as Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle’s thought was that poetry, and so by extension literature, can be a way of thinking about general, universal truths about humanity, the world and about reasoning itself. The upshot being that an author – through their observations, reflections and writing – can help us, as readers, to understand or relate to some truth.

If this view of literature is something we take seriously, then it’s perhaps worth paying attention to whether we are indeed still engaging with these universal truths when confronted with AI generated works. Knowing what we do about how an LLM generates its outputs, it is certainly the case that an AI novel written entirely using an LLM is not written by a reflective observer. Not as most of us would recognise it at least. Rather in its function as a product of an LLM, it is generated unreflectively based on a technologically mind-blowing and spectacularly complex probabilistic set of calculations about what the next word in a sequence should be.

Of course, the LLMs in the examples I discussed here all give humans some direct involvement in creating either images, or songs, or novels. It is human prompts that initiate the LLM to produce its outputs.  And maybe we can consider this human input to provide us with some grounding into the creative intentions of an author. Perhaps, then, this direct human oversight provides us with the opportunity to find truth in or through fiction. However, it’s clear that as we continue to use applications such as Sudowrite, we’re also training future iterations that will be less dependent on human curation. And as we do this, there seems little reason to expect that the human-AI balance in the creative process won’t become even more tilted towards AI. We might expect that the direct human creator’s voice will become more akin to an editor.

This all matters because literature matters. Stories matter. Tied up in our history are the stories we tell. They can help to shape our ethics, our societies and our beliefs. And as we develop and embrace AI in generating art, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the importance of the relationship between truth and fiction.

Picture by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash