Dan Yurman has been a professional copywriter his entire working life. It wouldn’t be hard for the 46-year-old owner of Re:word Content Co., a Toronto messaging agency focused services such as copywriting and proofreading, to see the generative AI program ChatGPT as an existential threat.
After all, ChatGPT is capable of writing, revising and translating work in real time without the paid services of a skilled writer like Mr. Yurman. When ChatGPT first debuted last November, many writers initially worried their days as paid professionals were numbered. Mr. Yurman was fascinated by it.
“I’ve never once been afraid of this,” Mr. Yurman says. “Not once.”
ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, is capable of writing in complete sentences, on command, by scouring the internet and compiling the data it finds – as well as past responses – into readable prose. Within its first two months, a UBS report found, the service was believed to have 100 million active users, making it the fastest growing consumer application ever.
People have used ChatGPT to write resumes, flood science fiction magazines with short stories and write college essays. BuzzFeed is reportedly turning to generative AI to crank out quizzes.
But generative AI at this point can’t match the soul, emotional depth or flexibility of a human writer, according to professional writers and experts. Despite these limitations, professional writers are finding some advantages to working with the technology.
Jennifer Goforth Gregory, a 50-year-old freelance content marketing writer based in North Carolina, doesn’t see ChatGPT as all that different from the headline generators and other tools she’s used over the years. These tools can help content marketers and copywriters come up with better, tighter lines for their work. However, Ms. Gregory emphasizes that she does not pass off AI-generated lines as her own.
For example, she once asked ChatGPT to come up with ideas for an article about cybersecurity. Much of what it spat out was stuff she already knew, but it helped her along in her process. “I used what it came up with as starting points,” Ms. Gregory says. “I combined it, I rewrote it, I added stuff – I used it as brainstorming to get me started, and then researched from there.”
Ms. Gregory is no stranger to AI. She’s written about AI for clients such as Google, Microsoft and IBM for more than a decade. She understands ChatGPT’s limitations and isn’t worried about it replacing her. After all, she says, an AI can’t mimic her conversational style or her years of experience in the tech industry. Nor can it adhere to the specific tone required by her clients. It also can’t reference her own lived experiences, something she adds to her writing as a personal touch.
“I think it’s easy to feel like AI writers are going to take our jobs,” Ms. Gregory says. “They’re going to take some of the parts of our jobs that they are better at than humans, so we can focus on the creative, artistic and personal aspects of business writing that require the human touch.”
Mr. Yurman has played around with ChatGPT since it launched in November, and he doesn’t see it replacing the kind of messaging Re:word provides its customers. At the moment, ChatGPT can only write from content that already exists (and, according to OpenAI, may have limited information on events after 2021).
He compares the copy ChatGPT pushes out to an IKEA kitchen – serviceable, but certainly not personal. “You don’t get IKEA for your forever home,” Mr. Yurman says. In his line of work, the forever home is a company’s website, home page and featured content. Companies looking to keep their Google rankings high might use ChatGPT to quickly crank out low-grade work, he says, but it won’t compare to the craftsmanship of a human writer.
“I can absolutely see how it adds value in specific ways,” Mr. Yurman says, “much like I can absolutely admire the way IKEA kitchens add value. But I’m not putting it in my Forest Hill home.”
Ishtiaque Ahmed, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, has been studying the uses of ChatGPT among writers, teachers, students and software developers since early February. So far, he’s found that most of them are taking the launch of ChatGPT positively, although they still believe AI might replace their efforts someday.
“What was more surprising to us was that they are still seeing ChatGPT more as a tool than as a competitor,” he says.
Mr. Ahmed’s research has found most people are using ChatGPT to help them format or rephrase their work, copy edit and summarize the writing of others. That might mean taking a long explanation of, for example, global warming and condensing it into a couple of paragraphs a non-scientist could easily understand.
For Susana Molinolo, a 53-year-old senior content designer and digital marketing consultant, a tool like ChatGPT isn’t a threat because she works with proprietary data held by companies – not information on the internet. Her work is also about way more than just producing copy. As a consultant, Ms. Molinolo is approached by clients for help deciding between a digital or email campaigns, media spending and ideas.
“I’m really seen as a consultant, so people aren’t only coming to me for my writing,” Molinolo says. “They’re coming to me for idea generation, or brainstorming and strategy.”
Yet there are some writers who might feel the pinch as ChatGPT and other easy-to-use writing tools become more commonplace. Writers who handle search engine optimization copy – easy-to-assemble posts designed to rank high on Google – might fall victim to ChatGPT. Content mills, or companies that churn out masses of generic content for companies, might also be in trouble.
Anil Verma, professor emeritus of industrial relations and HR management at the University of Toronto, says machines will start pushing human writers further up the skill scale. That may not be a problem for highly skilled professionals, but writers handling lower-skilled copy might be in trouble.
“I think the writing is on the wall for these people,” Mr. Verma says. Writers in this position should “learn to add value on top of what the machine can do”, he says, and get smarter about their work.
This could present a problem for younger writers in industries like marketing, advertising or journalism. Many of these rote writing gigs are excellent ways to break into the industry. What happens when machines are largely handling them?
Ms. Gregory says the rise of generative AI does make life harder for younger writers, but she doesn’t believe breaking in is impossible. Specialization, an understanding of a particular audience and branching out into a multitude of written forms – from webinars to podcasts – remain valuable ways for writers to stay one step ahead of the machine.
For its part, ChatGPT – when asked by The Globe in a chat-based interview – also doesn’t appear interested in beating human writers at their own game.
“As an AI language model, my primary purpose is to assist human writers, not to replace them,” ChatGPT wrote. “Human writers bring unique perspectives, insights and voices to their work, and they have the ability to connect with their readers in a way that AI language models cannot.”