Vauhini Vara is no stranger to AI-assisted writing: her 2021 Believer essay, “Ghosts,” was widely read and hit a nerve in so many readers, including all of us at Longreads. More than two years after publishing that piece, Vara reflects on the whole experience: what drove her to experiment with OpenAI’s GPT-3 in the first place; what she learned about text generators from co-writing the Believer essay with AI and tinkering with Sudowrite; and what she’s realized about the limitations of AI, and our current language models, in creating literature. Vara also warns us about Big Tech swallowing language itself—in the same way it’s transformed Very Human Things like friendship and community. These are poignant reflections and questions from a thoughtful writer.
In my opinion, GPT-3 had produced the best lines in “Ghosts.” At one point in the essay, I wrote about going with my sister to Clarke Beach near our home in the Seattle suburbs, where she wanted her ashes spread after she died. GPT-3 came up with this:
We were driving home from Clarke Beach, and we were stopped at a red light, and she took my hand and held it. This is the hand she held: the hand I write with, the hand I am writing this with.
My essay was about the impossibility of reconciling the version of myself that had coexisted alongside my sister with the one left behind after she died. In that last line, GPT-3 made physical the fact of that impossibility, by referring to the hand—my hand—that existed both then and now. I’d often heard the argument that AI could never write quite like a human precisely because it was a disembodied machine. And yet, here was as nuanced and profound a reference to embodiment as I’d ever read. Artificial intelligence had succeeded in moving me with a sentence about the most important experience of my life.