If you are a fan of science fiction or fantasy fiction (or both), you have probably heard of Clarkesworld Magazine – an award-winning online fantasy and science fiction publication published monthly by founder and editor Neil Clarke. Artificial intelligence has long been a staple of science fiction – long before it became a reality. This week, real artificial intelligence collided with fictional artificial intelligence at Clarkesworld … and the result was not pretty. Neil Clarke announced that the publication is no longer accepting submissions – the lifeblood of magazines – because so many of them are blatantly written by tools that use GPT-3, the machine language software developed by OpenAI. And that is just the tip of the AI iceberg at Clarkesworld … and the sci-fi fiction world as well.
“Submissions are currently closed. It shouldn't be hard to guess why.“
In his tweet on February 20, Neil Clarke assumed that the sci-fi world would understand why he was no longer accepting story submissions at Clarkesworld. The responses made him realized he needed to provide context. In a tweet the next day, he explained in detail why.
Welcome to the new world of science fiction writing. In a post on his personal website, Clarke explained that the pandemic brought an increase in submissions to Clarkesworld as people with ideas but no time to write suddenly had the time. Unfortunately, some also had time to plagiarize. As an experienced editor, he had a feel for the fakes and easily filtered them out. That changed in late 2022 when another spike in submissions brought Clarkesworld a new kind of article that Clarke says was becoming more difficult to spot – stories generated by ChatGPT tools or “AI” spam as he calls them.
“I’m not going to detail how I know these stories are “AI” spam or outline any of the data I have collected from these submissions. There are some very obvious patterns and I have no intention of helping those people become less likely to be caught. Furthermore, some of the patterns I’ve observed could be abused and paint legitimate authors with the same brush.”
How bad is the problem? Clarke reveals that 38% of the submissions to Clarkesworld in the current month were AI generated. If you support fighting technology with technology (a popular sci-fi plotline), Clarke says he’s tried the tools for detecting machine-written text (they are an expense many publishers cannot afford), but they are prone to false negatives and positives. Not only that, the same companies making these tools are also making tools for the AI spammers to avoid detection. Catch-22 for 21st century? In an interview with Quartz, Clarke admits some of the AI spam articles are easy to detect – for one thing, they always have perfect spelling! He also says that, like many other spams and scams, the bulk of them come from a few countries which he does not reveal – but he says he has legitimate writers in those countries as well, so he can’t just stop submissions from certain areas. He has other ideas, but admits that the battleground is changing so fast that any attempt is more like a game of “whack-a-mole.” At best, he’s hoping to evaluate submissions the old-fashioned way – with eyeballs and pencils - for a while technicians strengthen the submission software algorithms.
Going back to the idea that artificial intelligence, robotics and humanoid computers have been such a staple of science fiction, one might wonder if this problem has been addressed – and potentially solved – in some sci-fi novel or short story. If anyone should know, it’s Neil Clarke. Unfortunately …
“You know, I couldn’t really come up with any scenario where this lined up. I don’t think anyone anticipated using the robots to make art. This is one of those funny situations where everybody’s going, “Hey, should somebody have written about this?””
To some, this might seem like a harmless problem that may go away on its own as people get bored with ChatGPT and move on to the next bright shiny object. That may be, but in the meantime it is hurting Clarkeworld and all providers of writing financially as they are forced to spend more time weeding them out or competing with anonymous AI providers. Fans of Isaac Asimov and his three laws of robotics might point out that this is an instance, albeit small, of robots harming humanity – a clear violation that should result in the termination of chatGPT. Clarke agrees but doesn’t see this as the solution.
“They’re not trying to kill us. They’re just inadvertently burying us in all of their junk. I don’t think an AI is ever going to necessarily be any better than our best writer. The problem is not the quality. The problem is how quickly it can produce. It’s drowning out the other works, just by volume. That’s really what I see as the core issue we’re experiencing right now. It’s the quantity problem.”
Buried under our own junk. Will that be the epitaph on humanity’s tombstone? Reuters reports that Amazon’s e-book store includes at least 200 titles openly listing ChatGPT as an author or co-author - space-inspired poetry, children’s novels about penny-pinching forest animals, and how-to tutorials on using ChatGPT to supposedly improve one’s dating life. Should we just ban ChatGPT authors or anything written with the assistance of AI? Clarke points out that using cahtGPT to create a name for a character is similar to flipping through a phone book … and no one has ever credited a phone book as a co-author. In a sense, it’s a tool like a dictionary or a thesaurus or an idea-generator app. The writing of the story is still done by a human author. Amazon is hoping its writers adhere to its guidelines. It is obvious that this approach isn’t working.
Fortunately, Neil Clarke is not shutting down Clarkeworld any time soon, but is using the publicity of the submission shutdown as an appeal to generate more needed subscriptions and donations. He says, and we agree, that short science fiction is where many writers cut their teeth, and losing it would have serious long-term effects on the genre. Let’s hope a solution is found before that happens.
FYI – this article was written by a human … you kan tell bye the speling!