This post is part of a series. You can read Part 1 here.
What is “my job”?
I. Job Title
If you look at my Tinder bio, it says I’m a “Writer.” If you ask me in person, I’ll tell you I’m a writer, too. And, now, that you’ve asked, we might talk about what I’m writing. I’m editing my first novel, I’ll tell you. But mainly right now I’m working on a memoir. No, not my own memoir—the memoir of a business associate from China. And then it will probably come up that I lived in Shanghai for almost five years, and then it will come to light that the job I did there, which I still do part-time, and which actually pays my bills, is “education consultant.” And when you press me on what that is, I’ll say: “I help Chinese families send their kids to American colleges.”
At this point, you might have a general idea of the niche I occupy in society. But you won’t have a detailed idea what I do. Like, what comprises my day-to-day work. And I’d love to tell you, but I… don’t actually know?
If we want to find out whether AI can do my job yet, we’re going to need to figure this out.
II. Roles and Responsibilities
I should clarify that I obviously do “know” what work my job entails, inasmuch as I know how to do my job. But I have never laid it out formally before. It’s just muscle memory. You might as well ask me for written instructions on how to walk up stairs. Still, in order to attempt to transfer some of my work to a computer, I need to lay out “what I do” in detail.
So, here are the roles I occupy and broad tasks that comprise them (aka my “jobs”). They are presented in order of spiritual importance to me (and, incidentally, reverse order of how well they pay):
1. Fiction Writer
This one feels self explanatory—I make stuff up and write it down. I consider replacing this “job” off the table for the purposes of this investigation. Yes, GPT-4 can produce large volumes of prose on demand. It can even produce original ideas, or sufficiently original remixes of ideas it has trained on. Some people may find these capabilities helpful in their fiction writing. But for me, the appeal of making art is making the art. The process of thinking up my own ideas and figuring out how to express them is a big reason why I do it. I don’t want a machine to write my fiction for me, for the same reason I don’t want another human to write my fiction for me. Hence, I will not be attempting to use ChatGPT for fiction writing at this time.1
2. Memoir collaborator
This one is a little more sophisticated. In this role, I am not only writer, but a project manager. My collaborator has a fascinating life story, which he has conveyed to me over the course of a number of lengthy interviews. I, in turn, have a vision of how to convey that life story in the form of a 300-400 page book. Our workflow basically goes like this:
- I determine what section of my collaborator’s life comes next and instruct him to provide a detailed “outline” of it, covering select major points I already know plus tons of minor details that are new to me.
- He creates this outline.
- I read it, understand it, and annotate it with clarifying questions.
- We meet and he answers my questions.
- I take all this information and organize it into a more formal outline that is chronologically and thematically coherent.
- Following this new outline, I type sentences and paragraphs in a Word doc, aka our “rough draft.” This usually takes a week or two, during which time my collaborator is already working on his rough outline for the next section.
- My collaborator looks at my additions to the rough draft and makes comments and changes (sometimes I get facts wrong or express things in ways he disagrees with). We intend to go back and review/incorporate all of these once the rough draft is complete.
Of all these steps, #6 is the only one I think GPT-4 could realistically help with. It is time consuming and fairly mechanical. Moreover, it ought to be possible to train GPT-4 on my Obsidian notes, feed it my outlines, and have it spit out rough drafts of the chapters I need. Regrettably, wrangling the OpenAI API to do this would require programming expertise than I currently do not possess. It would also be a little unethical2. I might explore this someday, but it is out of scope for this series.
3. Independent education consultant
This is by far the most complex of my jobs. For the purposes of this investigation I wish to set aside the administrative work that all self-employed people have to deal with—I am not prepared to replace my human lawyer or accountant with an AI, nor do I wish to use ChatGPT to shop for health insurance. I will also not be using ChatGPT for sales/marketing. There is no question that I could use ChatGPT in this way if I wanted to grow my business. However, in recent years, 100% of my clients have come to me through my network rather than through any advertising on my part. So advertising simply isn’t one of my goals right now.
That leaves the service aspect of my job. Once I am set up to work with a student, the deliverable is basically “all of the student’s college application essays, plus maybe their Common App activities list and a resume, and a couple hours of interview practice if they want it.” This deliverable is produced through an open-ended number of meetings3, during which I get to know the student and then coach them through brainstorming, planning, drafting, and editing their essays and other application materials.
The “human interaction” part of this work—namely, interviewing the students about their life experiences in order to surface good ideas for their essays, and then coaching them to write those ideas down in a coherent way—probably would not be made more efficient by AI. But what if we had a completely different workflow? It could be vastly more efficient if, instead of waiting for the student to draft essays for homework and then email them to me, I simply used ChatGPT to create rough drafts of my students’ essays without their input. Similarly, it would be much more efficient for me to use ChatGPT to read student work and provide feedback on it, or revise it, instead of doing that sort of thing myself.
Of course, using ChatGPT like this would be extremely unethical.
I’m going to try it anyway.
Obviously, there are lots of ways ChatGPT could aid me in fiction writing. I could ask it to generate summary visual descriptions for various characters and places, or spit out 25 imaginary character names within given parameters. In fact, I may well end up using ChatGPT in the latter way, in the same way I already use various sites as sources of phonic inspiration when I need to come up with a fictional name or word. But when I talk about getting AI to “do my job,” I am talking first and foremost about getting it to do some of the painful, time-consuming aspects of my work. Coming up with a name takes minutes. I’m trying to save hours. ↩
If you haven’t already guessed, I consider the ethical issue of passing off GPT-4’s writing as my own—or more specifically my clients’ own—to be the defining question behind this entire project. I aim to address this question in the conclusion to this series. ↩
Also, emails. ↩