In Their Own Words: Michi Trota

Photo of Michi Trota
Michi Trota

We hope you can join us for an evening of exploration at the intersection of literature, technology, and artificial intelligence as we welcome writers Jonathan Taplin and Michi Trota to the American Writers Museum on Friday, November 10. These two prominent voices will engage in a dynamic discussion—accompanied by an actual AI chatbot—and together they will delve into how technology has reshaped the world of writing, the advantages and challenges of AI, and the profound implications of AI for the future of creative expression.

With a distinguished career in technology journalism, Taplin’s expertise in the tech industry uniquely positions him to offer a journalist’s perspective on the transformative power of AI on storytelling. Taplin’s latest book The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto is a brilliant takedown and exposé of the great con job of the twenty-first century—the metaverse, crypto, space travel, transhumanism—being sold by four billionaires (Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreesen, Elon Musk), leading to the degeneration and bankruptcy of our society. As an accomplished writer, editor, and five-time Hugo Award-winner, Trota brings a wealth of experience and insight into the evolving landscape of writing in the digital age. Her perspective on the creative ramifications of technology is sure to inspire and captivate.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Trota via email to learn more about her work and feelings on AI and storytelling. Read on to get the inside scoop and then register for our program, which takes place in person at the AWM but will also be livestreamed. Get tickets to attend in person here, or register for the livestream link here.

American Writers Museum: What changes do you realistically expect AI technology (predictive programming) to make to the writing process?

Michi Trota: I think it’s important to clarify what current “AI” technology is first, because our expectations about what “AI” is and what it’s capable of have been largely shaped by stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and the Terminator movies. As one of my favorite sci-fi writers, Ted Chiang, has noted several times, the technology we currently have and refer to as “AI” is nowhere near the possibility of becoming conscious or sentient – Chiang referred to it as “applied statistics,” which I find much more of an accurate description. It’s also far less sexy or exciting, which is probably a large reason why its proponents are choosing to market these programs as “AI.”

To be fair, it’s also extraordinary how much detailed information these programs can extract from the data they’re fed, and one thing I think we can expect is for these programs to improve in their use of colloquialisms and to produce text that reads more like “everyday speech.” The changes that predictive programs will make to writing that I’m expecting and far more concerned about however, are less about how people use technology to write and more about the ways in which our culture and economy value writing as a creative endeavor versus a product for profit. I’m also concerned with how these programs are likely to replicate biases regarding race, gender, disability, and so forth, not to mention the potential for spreading misinformation.

“The changes that predictive programs will make to writing…are less about how people use technology to write and more about the ways in which our culture and economy value writing as a creative endeavor versus a product for profit.”

There’s a reason movie studios’ use of predictive programs, what protections writers could depend on for their jobs, and how their work would be used to “train” predictive programs were major sticking points during the most recent Hollywood writers’ strike. Because we live in a late-stage capitalistic culture that values production and profits over all else, I fully expect corporations to do what they always do whenever new technology offers them a way to boost profits in the short term, regardless of the long term ramifications: use predictive programs like ChatGPT to cut costs wherever possible, which means cutting people, especially if they’re advocating for living wages and equitable working conditions. It also means they’ll adopt the technology regardless of whether or not the creators of the material used as data sets for those programs are compensated fairly for their work, which puts creatives, who are already dealing with precarious income streams, at further risk of exploitation.

AWM: How have advancements in technology impacted your own writing?

MT: I still remember what it was like to write before computers became so accessible, portable, and ubiquitous, so while I appreciate the nostalgia and craftsmanship of classic typewriters, writing on a laptop is so much easier than wrestling with an ink and paper word processor! I still prefer to brainstorm and outline using pen and paper, but for the “buckle down and write” stage, I absolutely rely on a computer, especially since my hands start aching a lot faster after writing by hand than they used to, and I’m not wasting nearly as much paper when I realize I need to throw out most of what I’ve written and start over.

Predictive programs like spellcheck, autofill functions, and have actually been extremely helpful with my writing, especially when dealing with the kind of brain fog and concentration issues that I can struggle with because of depression and C-PTSD, which were exacerbated after getting COVID last year. It’s incredible how much bandwidth can be freed up in your brain to focus on the more creative aspects of writing if you’re less stressed about things like spelling. This applies to my work both as a writer and an editor – as a writer, I want to give my editor the cleanest possible copy to work with so they can concentrate on more complex aspects of editing than grammar and spelling; as an editor, I’m able to work much faster at digging into things like a piece’s structure, focus, what can be cut, and what’s missing.

The issues I have with predictive programs have nothing to do with the fact that they exist, and everything to do with the data they’re given to pull from, how they’re being deployed, who’s really benefiting from the way they’re being marketed and used, and who’s really paying the cost for that use. Because that data doesn’t exist in a vacuum and context matters, and in our already inequitable and unjust society, it’s everyday people, especially those in marginalized communities, who are paying so the few who are already rich, privileged, and powerful can become even more so.

“Writers need to know how to protect the rights to their work, ensure they get paid when their work is used, and recognize when they’re at risk of exploitation.”

AWM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Specifically when it comes to technology?

MT: It’s vital for writers to be aware of how technology will impact them, both in terms of writing as a creative pursuit and as a product of their labor. The former can yield helpful tools to improve your craft, but the latter is where writers remain particularly vulnerable, especially when technology gets developed and adopted into practice much faster than the industry and legal precedents can keep up with. Writers need to know how to protect the rights to their work, ensure they get paid when their work is used, and recognize when they’re at risk of exploitation.

And contrary to pervasive narratives that frame writing as a primarily solitary pursuit, community-building and collective action are incredibly important for writers to engage in. This is where unions like the Writers Guild of America that allow writers to exercise power as a group when going toe-to-toe with wealthy corporations are crucial – if at all possible, writers should look into groups like Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), Mystery Writers of America (MWA), Romance Writers of America (RWA), Asian American Journalists Association, Society of Professional Journalists, and others for resources and support. The internet and social media are still powerful means of connecting with other writers – use them to connect with writers who might offer good advice, writers who are your peers, and writers who are newer in their careers and might benefit from your experiences, so you can all work together to ensure that the development of advances like predictive programs won’t come at writers’ expense.

AWM: What facets are being overlooked most in the current discourse around AI and creative expression? What are the ramifications not enough people are concerned about?

MT: I’ve been a fan of science fiction for my whole life, and since the current wave of fascination with AI hit, I’ve been making jokes about SkyNet-like evil robots, the thinking machines from Dune, and that episode of Star Trek: Next Generation where Capt. Picard has to argue that Cmdr. Data is an independent sentient being and not a glorified walking computer. But I think the implication that we should be worried about what happens when AI “gets smart” is a distraction from the actual, more realistic threat posed by the way our “profits before people” economy is looking to implement predictive programs. And it doesn’t help that mainstream American culture still primarily looks at creative endeavors like writing as a hobby more than a profession, where the art we create results from an ineffable mix of talent and luck, and not lifetimes of time, money, and energy poured into developing skilled labor.

“The ways in which capitalism encourages us to use programs like ‘AI’ reflects our deeper societal issues with viewing everything and everyone around us as things to exploit rather than seeing the world around us as worth connecting with respectfully and empathetically.”

The press and public figures need to do a better job at communicating to the public how the push to adopt “AI” programs isn’t some vague tech fad that doesn’t affect everyday people – it’s absolutely an issue of workers rights, labor practices, the value of creative expression, widening economic divides, and who has the power to control the ways we receive information. It’s not fear mongering to worry about how a publication’s writing staff might get fired and replaced by chatbots “writing” news briefs because the publication owners/shareholders don’t want to give anyone living wage raises and healthcare. Additionally, writers like Katherine Cross are making excellent points about how the ways in which capitalism encourages us to use programs like “AI” reflects our deeper societal issues with viewing everything and everyone around us as things to exploit rather than seeing the world around us as worth connecting with respectfully and empathetically.

AWM: If you could meet one American writer from the past—of any genre or medium—who would it be and why?

MT: If I had a TARDIS, I’d want to go back in time to meet all the women and other marginalized storytellers, especially those who were playing around with genre, whose work got buried and ignored just because they weren’t white men who had access to the education and resources to allow them to write in America.

But since I don’t know the names of those lost writers and I’m not a Time Lord, it’s a tie between Mary Shelley and Carl Sagan. As the author of the ultimate cautionary tale of creating our own monsters out of hubris, I would dearly love to know what Shelley’s thoughts would be about the fact we’re still venerating “genius white men” like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and others despite how much harm they’ve caused, as I imagine she’d have some very choice words about it. What I wouldn’t give for an Iron Man story arc written by Shelley!

As for Sagan, I grew up watching the original Cosmos series on PBS, and the way he saw our tiny place in the universe as a reason for wonder and empathy instead of existential angst is something I think we’re in desperate need of. If there’s one writer I’d want to have over for tea, cookies, and a long discussion about the role of storytelling in humanity’s development and how to tell stories responsibly, it’d be Sagan.

Our program Words and Machines: The Future of Writing with Jonathan Taplin and Michi Trota takes place November 10 at 6:00 pm Central.



Photos of Jonathan Taplin and Michi Trota and book cover of The End of Reality: How Four Billionaires are Selling a Fantasy Future of the Metaverse, Mars, and Crypto


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