Given how we associate philosophers with thick, dusty tomes, it may seem strange that someone widely considered to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Socrates, shunned the technology of writing (yes, writing is most certainly a technology even if it isn't typically thought of that way). But shun it he did.

Socrates felt that writing would lead people to overly rely on written texts to remember things and lose their memory skills. He also believed that it was a poor substitute for face-to-face discussions and would lead to fewer of them and that the strictly visual nature of the medium couldn't convey all the nuances and complexities that human speech could.

If you think about it, all of Socrates's fears have in fact been realized. It is indeed less common for us to remember lengthy passages of poetry, for example, and studies also suggest that our memory skills have diminished due to the ubiquity of the smartphone. Also, the written word, particularly when combined with digital technology, has made it possible to have fewer in-person discussions since so much can be conveyed through printed text, especially in our current era of remote work.

As for writing failing to capture the nuances of human speech, I think we can all think of times when an innocuous or friendly text message was misunderstood due to the lack of other useful cues (e.g., a joking tone of voice). It's hard to measure how much these changes may have diminished the human experience since we have nothing to which we can compare it. At the same time, I think most people would agree that writing has provided tremendous benefits to human civilization.

Just as with writing or any world-changing technology, the sudden and dramatic rise of AI-assisted writing technology, specifically ChatGPT, has generated a similar debate. Compelling arguments are made on both sides, and I am not here to argue strongly for either. I suspect that the reality may be that, as with other technologies, there will be a combination of both positive and detrimental effects.

However, as a scholar of communication, I do have some concerns that are unique to AI in general and to AI-generated writing technology in particular. And given how fast the technology is improving, we need to grapple with these questions now or risk potentially losing significant parts of what makes us human.

Just Another Technology or Different This Time?

While it's true that every major technological breakthrough has caused some hand-wringing, when it comes to AI there are some factors that might prove the doomsayers right. One factor has to do with speed and scale.

Even a world-changing technology like writing still required human beings to do the actual writing. AI-assisted writing creates the potential for a nearly endless flow of content produced at lightning speed, with the full ramifications of this difficult to grasp.

Another dimension that concerns me has to do with the ruthless efficiency with which AI can exploit human weaknesses. Part of my work has been researching social media issues such as misinformation, hate speech and polarizing content. Social media algorithms have already done considerable harm to our social fabric in the name of monetization by eliciting and maximizing content that's highly divisive and damaging to users' mental health yet can be predictably relied on to engage them. And despite the existence of bots, social media platforms still largely rely on human users to create this content.

When I consider AI's vast knowledge of how to push people's buttons, so to speak, combined with a powerful ability to create endless content by itself, it boggles my mind to imagine how bad social media's current problems could potentially get.

The Prophetic Vision of "WALL-E"

The 2008 Pixar film "WALL-E" depicts a future in which AI caters to every whim and need of human beings to the point that they have lost their natural abilities. The film portrays an exaggerated and dystopian vision of Socrates's fear that writing would cause people to lose certain skills. But the question the film raises is a critical one: At what point in letting AI do everything for us would we lose core aspects of what makes us human?

Let's look specifically at AI-generated writing. Depending on the topic, and depending on who you ask, ChatGPT's essay writing skill could currently be said to be on par with that of an average high school or college student. But as of yet it doesn't convincingly pass for the work of a skilled journalist or scholar, for example, and the kerfuffle over CNET's undisclosed use of ChatGPT to write articles has only reinforced this fact.

Despite this, ChatCPT, along with a human author, has already been allocated authorship on numerous academic journal articles. And within just a few years, ChatGPT could become good enough to be indistinguishable from human-written journalism or scholarship, at which point it may also be good enough to potentially replace human-written literature (indeed, it seems to have already reached that level with the visual arts).

Asking (and Keeping) What Makes Us Human

Here is where we should pause and ask ourselves what it is that makes us human and to what degree we are willing to let that go. It is not just a matter of companies replacing human artists, writers and musicians.

While a small fraction of people practice these crafts for a living, many more do them in their spare time for nothing more than the sheer satisfaction of creativity and self-expression. For both professionals and hobbyists, the process of the art is just as important as the final product if not more so.

How satisfying would it be, for example, to simply give ChatGPT a prompt and have it crank out a novel or symphony in a matter of minutes? Likewise, from the position of the reader, how satisfying would it be to read a novel written by AI once you get past the novelty of it? Isn't part of the pleasure of engaging with a work of art knowing that you are connecting with the heart and mind of another human being?

It isn't hard to imagine this dilemma spilling over into just about every dimension of human communication. Will AI write our letters, emails, and texts for us? Our dating profiles? It certainly wouldn't be hard to imagine AI analyzing vast amounts of data to determine what makes a successful dating profile and then writing it for us. It also wouldn't be hard to imagine people leaping at the chance to get more successful matches by having AI write their profile and all their messages for them.

Communication theorist Walter Fisher believed that all meaningful human communication was a form of narrative and storytelling. He called this narrative paradigm, and it's not just about novels, films and TV dramas — what we usually refer to as "stories." It's all our daily interactions and communication.

According to Fisher, we infuse these with narrative elements that help us make sense of the world. If you've ever wondered how different people can witness the same event, be presented with the same objective facts, and yet come away with completely different interpretations, that's the narrative paradigm at play. Fisher didn't see the narrative paradigm as inherently a good or bad thing; it's just what made us human.

If storytelling is what makes us human, but we are no longer the ones doing it, then where would that leave us? Will we have to reconceive what being human means? Or would we want to conserve that storytelling part of ourselves? If so, what safeguards should we put in place to ensure this?

I don't purport to have the answers, but I believe that it's crucial to be asking ourselves these questions now because there's one thing we can already know for certain. As reluctant as we might be to take on this task, it would be wise to do so considering how fast AI technology is growing. Otherwise, we may one day suddenly find ourselves without the very things that used to define who we were as a species and, having gone too far down the path, uncertain of how to get it back.

(Julianna Kirschner, Ph.D. is a lecturer for the Master of Communication Management program at the University of Southern California.)

Illustration picture of ChatGPT