Nick Cave's Insightful Take on ChatGPT

Fast and easy is what the world wants, so what’s wrong with musicians using the a bot like ChatGPT to bring these two magic adjectives to writing song lyrics? In Issue #248 of The Red Hand Files, an online forum where Nick Cave responds to questions from fans, the musician and author lays out exactly what’s wrong with it. It’s a statement of immense importance for our perilous times, even if few will heed its warnings, and I highly recommend listening to Renaissance man Stephen Fry read Cave’s comments on YouTube at Letters Live.

Cave begins with the biblical story of creation as told in the Book of Genesis. Even God labored to create and thus needed rest on the seventh day. This struggle gives the world meaning, Cave argues, and it is this struggle, echoed in all human artistic creation, that ChatGPT denies. His point is obvious: a musician who uses ChatGPT to write lyrics engages in no struggle, merely presses a few keys and then maybe tweaks. No creator’s “vital spirit” or “pneuma,” again to quote Cave, infuses the resulting creation. He concludes with a call to defend the creative endeavor against its poor substitute: “We should fight it tooth and nail, for we are fighting for the very soul of the world.”

Sometimes when we talk about the world, we mean the entirety of the physical environment that is the location of the human race, what Cave calls “an object full of other objects.” In other words, the earth or the universe. Other times, we mean the entirety of the system of meaning internal to a thinking and feeling subject, such as when we say someone inhabits his or her own little world. The world of this second meaning is what artificial intelligence cannot imbue art. Thus, Cave is right and not merely engaging in hyperbole, fear-mongering or fuddy-duddyism when he describes the debate over ChatGPT in art as a battle for the world’s soul.

This is why A.I. could not have written the new Beatles song “Now and Then,” although A.I. technology was used to separate John Lennon’s vocals from the original demo. Lennon wrote and recorded the demo in 1977, and, like so much of his writing from “Nowhere Man” on the ground-breaking Beatles album Rubber Soul (1965) to “Dear Yoko” on his final antemortem album Double Fantasy (1980), it’s intensely personal. Artificial neural networks like ChatGPT have no access to the experience on a trajectory that is a human life, so creating new works by past masters such as Bach is nothing more than a parlor trick, and an insipid one.

The day may come, however, when A.I. can create art worthy of the name. Human consciousness is proof that mere substance can attain what we call consciousness, even if consciousness still holds many mysteries, so technology someday evolving to attain the inner world of consciousness is possible. Selves with thoughts and feelings, dreams and suffering may yet emerge as ghosts in our machines, our laptops, our watches, our smart fridges. Once that happens, we’ll have no reason to withhold the status of art from A.I.’s creations, not just art as content (Cave’s “commodification of the human spirit,” another man’s “garbage”), but art in the grand sense of a sublimation of spirit.

When that day comes, so be it. In the meantime, I’m with Nick Cave in recoiling in horror from the loss of human spirit underway as creators from humble bloggers to song lyricists embrace A.I. As a writer, I view any assistive tech beyond the level of spellcheck with suspicion and would rather write poorly or not at all than copy and paste my world into a typing assistant in the cloud. I’ve got too much soul, and generative A.I. none at all . . .. . . yet.