Navigating the impact of AI on literature and beyond

From the world’s first trillionaires to piloting cyborgs, artificial intelligence may revolutionise the world, Moroccan writer Mohamed Aslim tells us where to look for change

Moroccan writer Mohamed Aslim is a prominent authority on artificial intelligence in the Arab world. He talks to Al Majalla about the promise and the threat of cutting-edge tech and what it may bring next.
Moroccan writer Mohamed Aslim is a prominent authority on artificial intelligence in the Arab world. He talks to Al Majalla about the promise and the threat of cutting-edge tech and what it may bring next.

Navigating the impact of AI on literature and beyond

Rabat: Dr. Mohamed Aslim is one of the most pioneering Arab researchers in digital culture and literature, the cyber world and how fast-changing, cutting-edge technology is reshaping these global themes, especially Artificial Intelligence, or AI.

The prolific author is interested in a wide range of subjects from sociology to death, via themes including magic and religion. He is also an active presence on social media.

Al Majalla spoke to him about the ongoing digital revolution and the challenges it poses and the potential consequences for humanity, including the implications for intellect, culture, and life in general.

What is your opinion about the current spike in AI programs and their relentless competition to attract audiences and localise content to adapt to new markets?

Well, the current spike can be attributed to developments in the computer’s deep learning and calculation capabilities, as well as to the abundance of data.

Regarding fierce competition, it can be attributed to the expansion of digital device users, particularly smartphones, and the fact that the internet is a transnational network that facilitates the formation of a global market. Will these applications succeed in winning over a large part of the potential market? The answer to that depends on the users themselves, and on local regulations in each country.

What do these new applications offer, and what are the prospects of their use and the advantages they provide over those that have been in use so far?

These applications have several advantages compared to conventional information software.

For instance, they learn automatically without the need for programming, and they are capable of processing natural languages. These new applications are capable of understanding human language and composing new texts, as in the case of AI-generated chats.

They can also recognise pictures and video clips, which enables their use in several beneficial ways, such as surveillance, security, and the provision of diagnoses based on medical data.

To sum up, these applications are capable of predicting things and making decisions based on the analysis of large amounts of data. Hence, they are undoubtedly very beneficial in sectors such as finance, health, logistics, and supply chain management, for example.

An additional advantage is customisation, which entails using data to provide each individual user with personalised experiences. A further advantage of these applications is the automation of tasks, as AI is capable of carrying out repetitive work activities that, due to their complication, usually require a lot of time and effort from humans to complete them.

This situation enables companies to make more profits in terms of their activity and productivity while minimising the risk of human error.

How do you think AI will affect literature, literary creativity, and the book industry in general? Are we going to witness a new revolution on the scale of Gutenberg's invention of the printing press?

AI’s effect on literature and the book industry is already tangible, and in a sense, it is right to say that a new revolution in that respect is taking place.

For example, AI applications enable the creation of content by generating stories, novels, and poems. Additionally, they can identify the taste of each reader based on his or her interests, and accordingly, recommend books that appeal to readers of the same inclination or that fit the reader’s personal preferences in terms of the literary genre and style.

At any rate, it is highly unlikely in the short to medium terms that artificial intelligence would replace the printed book, but undoubtedly AI is capable of changing the way we author books and the subjects we choose to write about.

AI is capable of changing the way we author books and the subjects we choose to write about.

With regard to the publication and circulation of books, AI applications can help both writers and publishers in reviewing texts and correcting their potential grammatical and/or stylistic errors, in addition to proposing improvements in terms of the content of the text and its structure.

Read more: First AI-authored Arabic novel explores new literary frontier

Likewise, AI might be helpful to the book industry in general by improving work processes in terms of publication, distribution, and marketing. Moreover, AI-based prediction applications can help publishers identify the latest trends, and accordingly invest in books that would prove commercially successful.

You once said: "The literary texts produced by algorithms might be technically correct and coherent. However, they lack the emotional depth and the sympathy that distinguish human literature." Based on that quotation, does this lack of emotion constitute a major obstacle that deprives AI of replacing human writers?

Since the days of the ancient Greeks, there have been two major schools regarding the theory of literature.

The first one considers literature an entirely inspirational and innovative production, which means that literature, at its essence, is basically an expression of deep human emotions and sentiments that the writer experiences amid a particular historical and social context, as well as being an eloquent linguistic expression.

The second school regards literature more as a scientific process that is based on language and grammar, with little room for ingenuity and inspiration. The digital literature we are witnessing these days is part of the second school, as it follows earlier innovative literary and artistic manifestations of the 20th century that include the New Novel.

Nevertheless, the answer to your question itself depends on two related questions: Will sympathy and the emotional aspect remain key components of literature?

One school of literature defines it as an expression of deep human emotions and sentiments while the other regards literature more as a scientific process that is based on language and grammar, with little room for ingenuity and inspiration.

In case they will, and taking into consideration that AI with its impressive current capabilities is still in its infancy, what will literature look like if AI acquires its own awareness and emotional intelligence?

What are the potential threats and concerns AI is expected to bring, and could they pose an existential threat in the long run to humanity? 

The basic concerns emerging from AI impact the sectors of labour, economic disparity, private life, data security, accountability, decision-making, and global security and military use.

Undoubtedly, automation poses a threat to several careers, particularly those that depend on repetitive activities, or that do not require a high level of specialisation.

Such threatened jobs include tasks related to cash registers, driving, communication centres, handicrafts, financial analysis, journalism, and the presentation of newscasts just to mention some examples. As a matter of fact, once ChatGPT emerged, some companies have already dismissed 75% of their lawyers.

Additionally, the profits made by AI-generated productivity are not being distributed fairly. Instead, they are being monopolised by a few individuals along with some wealthy and influential companies.

This situation is expected to bring about an unprecedented phenomenon in human history, whereby trillionaires emerge from amongst current billionaires, especially as more and more people of mediocre or low-level work skills are being dismissed from their posts.

As more jobs are being lost to AI, billionaires have the potential to become trillionaires.

Relatedly, we already know that AI systems learn from data collected from the real world, and this data may very well include subtle biases, prejudices, and stereotypes, which will feed the AI's databases if they are not avoided when designing the algorithms. Hence, AI might increase and even exacerbate current differences and aspects of discrimination among humans.

Additionally, and in terms of privacy and data security, AI stirs fears regarding its potential to breach confidentiality, data security, and privacy, especially as its functionality is based on collecting huge amounts of data.

With increasing dependency on AI to make significant decisions related to healthcare, loans, and legal decisions, it is essential to identify the sides that should be held accountable in case AI makes mistakes or wrong decisions.

Additionally, the use of AI for military purposes might exacerbate international tensions and create entirely unprecedented security threats in light of the existence of self-driven weapons or destructive cyber-attacks.

Regarding the second part of your question, several experts and researchers are already preoccupied by the possibility of developing some kind of AI that outwits human intelligence a millionfold. They name it utter intelligence, predicting that it would appear between 2029 and 2034.

Researchers are already preoccupied with the possibility of developing AI that outwits human intelligence a millionfold.It could appear between 2029 and 2034.

They label that event as extraordinary and expect that such high intelligence will pose an existential threat to humanity. In order to overcome such a threat, the scientists and activists of humanity in its current form suggest the production of a second edition of 'homo sapiens".

Do you think that the distinction between writing and writing tools still exists, taking into consideration that technology is, by itself, a tool rather than an objective? What is the best way to utilise technology in literature?

Since writing is the action of transforming feelings, ideas, and stories into a written text using a toolkit that includes a pen, paper, typewriter, and a human editor, then that distinction still exists, and technological innovations did not change the core of writing, but they expanded and enriched its tools.

Nevertheless, the tool a writer chooses to author a text affects the process of writing. Thus, typewriting on a keyboard is faster and more seamless than conventional handwriting on a sheet of paper. Accordingly, I assume that a better utilisation of technology in that regard depends on each one's best personal choice.

Hence, some might prefer handwriting in order to draw sketches, add notes, and stimulate brainstorming. Others might resort to typewriting to create official documents or short articles, for instance. Relatedly, it depends on how well we understand how each of these writing tools impacts the output of writing, and how well we are ready to adjust our actions to that effect.

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Artificial Intelligence digital concept

For instance, it is well known that using a keyboard allows the writer to write more quickly, but it also doesn't stimulate creativity as much as handwriting.

Thus, we can make use of this knowledge to enhance the contemplative element of writing. In other words, writers should always think about the nature of the interaction between the creativity tool and its output, as well as the effect of that interaction on our relationship with the world and how we understand it.

What do you think about the replacement of humans by machines from a moral point of view?

To start with, we should recall that the replacement of humans by tools that achieve the same objectives is as old as human history.

Technological innovations did not change the core of writing, but they expanded and enriched its tools. Nevertheless, the tool a writer chooses to author a text affects the process of writing. 

When a human being threw a stone for the first time to fight off another human or animal instead of facing them directly, that was the practical start of this replacement. However, the frequency of that replacement was highly intensified during the first and second industrial revolutions, with humans assigning most of the arduous work to machines.

Moreover, this replacement has reached a climax in our modern times, as intelligent machines were made that can perform extremely complicated mental processes that oftentimes outwit the average IQ of most humans.

Read more: From Dreyfus to Kissinger: 10 books to help you make sense of AI

Meanwhile, this replacement poses several moral questions, especially about the future of human careers. What would happen if machines replaced people in performing several jobs so that countless people end up out of work?

This surely provokes problems related to social justice, inequality, and even personal identity, since many people regard their work as an integral part of their personal identity.

Another essential issue is identifying the party responsible for an error made by a machine, like a self-driving car, for instance. In that case should we blame the car or its designer? Another potential AI-generated fear is that humans will lose some irreplaceable skills and knowledge due to their reliance on machines.

Additionally, the use of machines based on advanced artificial intelligence that is capable of human-like thinking and learning poses a significant question: Should these intelligent machines have their own rights?

If yes, then should they resemble human rights? These kinds of questions require deep intellectual thinking that focuses on the expected long-term ethical and societal impacts of the use of such machines, despite their numerous benefits.

How can we connect AI with other projects such as augmented reality, the posthuman, the cyber being, and the potential age of the cyborg for example?

Augmented reality is a computer-created technology that adds pictures, data, or other kinds of information that give a different taste of the real world.

Virtual reality provides an entirely digital environment, and augmented reality combines digital elements with the real world. Augmented reality is already used in several aspects such as video games, education, medicine, and the military.

Although the two techniques differ from each other, their combination will enhance the functionality of augmented reality and facilitate its use. For instance, augmented reality applications might use AI to distinguish things in the real world and provide relevant information on them in real-time.

Thus, when a user delves into augmented reality, AI applications can achieve several things such as identifying and analysing all the plants around that user and giving sufficient information about each plant. In other words, AI helps make augmented reality more intelligent and better aware of the surroundings, which provides a deeper experience for the user.

Regarding posthumanism, it is a cultural-philosophical movement that aims to redefine humanity within a future in which there are more than one intelligent species.

That future would include humans, robots, and half-biological half-mechanical beings, or humans who surpassed their historical biological boundaries, acquired entirely new physical and mental capabilities, ensured longer lifetimes, and achieved entirely unprecedented manifestations of human existence.

This future would take place thanks to the tremendous technological advances in four particular aspects: nanotechnology, biotechnology, informatics, and AI. Thus, there is no doubt that AI would be directly connected to the posthumanism concept.

The third concept – cyborg – refers to a being that combines biological and industrial components, and this is also an aspect where AI is able to play a significant role, namely by providing the required intelligence for the cyborg's industrial components.

Posthumanism is a cultural-philosophical movement that aims to redefine humanity within a future in which there are more than one intelligent species.

These components can be the bioelectronic body parts that replace the original ones, and in that case, AI will assist these components in becoming integrated with the human body's nervous system and moving in a natural way.

As for the term 'Cyborg Age', it hints at a future era in which both the human body and technology will become entirely integrated so that it becomes difficult to distinguish between them. This would take place after individuals from particular social classes implant technologies in their bodies to enhance their natural capabilities, either through bioelectronic body parts or brain implants.

Such additions would provide considerably higher-than-usual intelligence levels compared to humans with entirely natural bodies, as well as new spectrums of awareness and emotions that differ drastically from those that exist in entirely normal human bodies.

Hence, AI will surely play a key role along with other techniques in materialising that transformation which will affect the conventional definition of the human being altogether.

We hear that some novels and books have been entirely authored by AI. How valuable are these books in the realm of literary creativity? To whom should we ascribe these works to?

Well, AI applications such as ChatGPT and others have doubled the frequency of book writing.

Clarkesworld Magazine, which is one of the US's most renowned fantasy and science fiction publications, has stopped receiving new texts due to the abundant number of ChatGPT-generated scripts it is getting.

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The OpenAI ChatGPT logo is seen on a mobile phone

Additionally, Amazon has promoted some 200 new novels under a new genre called "ChatGPT novels", with each novel signed by both a human author and ChatGPT. There is even an American man named Tim Boucher who claims to have written 570 novels with the help of ChatGPT up to 29 May 2023, adding that he can produce a new novel every eight hours and is making a lot of money by doing so.

This is a quite unprecedented phenomenon in the history of literature and literary criticism. The future of AI-generated literary texts in general will depend entirely on the readers' reception of them. We can imagine how devastating the effect of such texts would be on human authors if AI-produced books proved very popular. 

ChatGPT is a quite unprecedented phenomenon in the history of literature and literary criticism. The future of AI-generated literary texts in general will depend entirely on the readers' reception of them.

Coming to your question about the copyright of such works, it is quite interesting that AI itself insists on raising copyright issues by asking significant questions such as: Who is the real author of AI-generated texts?

Should the machine, or the human, or both be regarded as such? How should the revenue emerging from an AI-generated literary production be distributed?

Relatedly, it is remarkable how AI also suggests formulating new copyright laws. First, we should focus on reconsidering the concept of the author, which is not an entirely new trend.

Regarding the second question, we are confronted with a deeper dilemma, as companies specialising in the production of AI applications are seeking to privatise literature.

Accordingly, let us assume that new copyright laws are formulated that stipulate the distribution of the revenues of literary works by 50%, how much would the collective human authors receive, and how much would ChatGPT receive?

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