Continuations of Thought on Arbitrary Topics (writing a blog)

Artificial Intelligence has been newsworthy for some time, but never before has my curiosity been more piqued than when Jeremy Kahn (Bloomberg) published a story this week in Fortune: “This Article Is Fake News. But It’s Also The Work of AI”.

The story explains that OpenAI, a non-profit artificial intelligence research group in San Francisco, has unveiled a machine learning algorithm that generates synthetic text, or fake text, after being prompted with arbitrary input. The program even adapts to the style of the input – chameleon-like in generating realistic and coherent continuations about a topic of the user’s choosing.

In Kahn’s example, only two lines became the input: “A train carriage containing controlled nuclear materials was stolen in Cincinnati today. Its whereabouts are unknown.”

With no human guidance, the language model finishes the story by explaining in great detail that the incident had occurred on the downtown train line, which runs from Covington and Ashland stations, and that the U.S.Department of Energy was working with the Federal Railroad Administration to find the thief. It claimed the stolen material was taken from the University of Cincinnati’s Research Triangle Park nuclear research site, according to a news release from Department officials, and ended with a quote from the U.S. Energy Secretary, “We will get to the bottom of this and make no excuses.”

OpenAI’s company website reveals other fake news examples generated by the program, including reporting on a war of the orcs, Miley Cyrus caught shoplifting on Hollywood Boulevard, a remote herd of unicorns discovered that spoke perfect English, and JFK has just been elected President after rising from the grave.

In every case, the language model finishes the thought with a completely unexpected, relative and captivating narrative – sometimes on its first try. The implications and potential abuse of this new technology are frightful, but I can’t help being intrigued by the program’s ability to create such colorful stories from a random thought – perhaps because this is also the most compelling challenge of your everyday blogger.

In six years of writing to this blog I don’t think I’ve ever created a cohesive narrative on the first try, no matter how unexpected or captivating the topic. And while it seems like writing a big, fat, fake narrative would be fun, fiction seems to be the most difficult of all writing endeavors. I realized early on that my writing would be limited to reality.

Fortunately even the most mundane ’real’ topics seem fascinating material in those early years of blogging – and they flowed like water.

I had only published 30 posts when I decided to write about my foot. A quick search revealed the Statue of Liberty had been designed with toes just like mine. I named the post, ‘The Normal Variation: A Lesson On Morton’s Toe,’ and the rest is history. That post was the number one read post on this blog for the first five years. Bloggers everywhere will probably understand when I say, who knew?

But you never really know which topic will interest readers. I’ve written two poems – they were both about a day in the life of one or all of my dogs, and I’ve written extensively about my personal running adventures. When there was nothing of interest to write about within those topics, I’d go fishing for a topic.

On one such occasion my searching uncovered comments made at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in June of 1999 by Dr. Stephen Seiler. He had coined the phrase, the “black hole” of training, which, in the athletic world, meant the no-man’s land of mediocrity — a place where an athlete’s high-intensity effort is performed too slow, and the low-intensity effort is performed too fast, resulting in every training effort being performed at medium-intensity…. which accomplishes nothing. I could completely relate to this newfound advice, and wrote a passionate study on how to avoid the moderate middle of training. ‘Training’ became the topic of choice for several years as I explored the depths of distance running myself.

I became enthralled with Arthur Lydiard’s base building philosophy after a Kung Fu classmate had mentioned it in class one week. I spent months working through the program and writing about each phase. That’s about the same time I began to realize just how many runners across the World are also interested in all things running. Readers have visited from over 100 countries, and I love that no matter where we live, we have things in common.

When I went back to school in 2014 I wrote about kayaking, hiking and climbing, but I also learned about Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome that year, and wrote how that theory, and our response or adaptation to stress, can help athletes in their training. Life provided the blog topics, and for awhile it seemed they’d never dry up. Eventually they do, even if only temporarily.

This is where I imagine the OpenAI language model could have stepped in and turned this little blog of mine on its head. I could provide dozens of arbitrary thoughts, and AI could create a captivating post; although the easy answer is not always the right answer.

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Eventually I had a crazy idea to write an entire series about runner’s injuries – taking them one body part at a time, and ‘The Anatomy of a Runner’ was born. The first post I wrote was loosely titled after Meghan Trainor’s song, “It’s All About That Bass,” and it took over the number one spot last year for the most read post. I was nervous about taking on human anatomy, but it has been the most challenging and rewarding writing I’ve done so far.

Beginning this blog has changed my life most unexpectedly. I love to write. To tell a story. And it doesn’t really matter the subject. I’ve risked alienating my fellow runners by writing about my garden, the dogs, our life, or my interior design adventures. It is always a tough decision to do that, but every topic requires that you adapt your style of writing somewhat, and I like that challenge.

I’ve wondered lately how blogs end. Do you plan that last post, or maybe you write a post one day and never return. Maybe the problem is that we run out of ideas, or life no longer seems exciting enough to write about. Maybe life gets too busy to write, or the reason you started blogging in the first place isn’t going so well. Who wants to write about something they no longer do or enjoy.

In 2013 I created a document on my iPad that I named ‘Draft.’ I write my entire post into that document, and edit it several times before I paste it into WordPress (where it undergoes another several gazillion edits). Sometimes my draft document also contains random thoughts or ideas I’ve found to use in other posts.

At the top of the document right now is a quote from Nordstrom’s co-president, a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, and an idea for the title of a future post. There’s also a reference from a study about the known predictors and injury rates of recreational runners who steadily train in long-distances, and the remnants of a post I started last week about our living room, but then deleted out of frustration. Sometimes my draft document is completely empty – correctly reflecting the number of ideas in my head at that time. As my husband says, “Close your eyes.”

There’s dozens of potential topics left to explore though, even if only the first two lines of thought have been generated. As the saying goes, the only way to get better at writing is to write – to encourage yourself to go ahead and write about that arbitrary topic that came to mind in the middle of the night. After all, practice is the only way to get good enough to write an unexpected and captivating story on the first try – without artificial intelligence, of course.

2 thoughts on “Continuations of Thought on Arbitrary Topics (writing a blog)

  1. Very clever tie in with fake news. And I agree with you that we only get better at any skill by doing what builds it. It’s the 10,000 rule (Malcomb Gladwell). I wonder, along with you, how blogs just end. I write my logic blog maybe once a month and the one on God’s word more frequently. I’ve freed myself away from a schedule. I just wait until I have something I want to work out in my mind. Writing brings clarity.

    Like

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