Here’s why all AI writing should carry a label

Note: This piece first appeared as an op-ed in The Ottawa Citizen on March 21, 2023.

Since ChatGPT-3 was released a few months ago, we can’t seem to go more than five seconds without reading a sentence about — and increasingly created by — the AI software or its latest iteration, GPT-4. The speed and skill of the writing machine is prompting many new questions about the future of education, jobs and books, and even about what it means to be human.

Machine writing is not everyone’s cup of tea, and some would argue it will remain inferior to human writing for reasons that no amount of software refinement can ever remedy. In a recent essay, English Prof. Walt Hunter offers a theory as to why this might be so. He compares a poem by Seamus Heaney, the human, about his mother’s death with a poem by ChatGPT produced in the style of Seamus Heaney.

Hunter concludes that Heaney’s poem is superior for many reasons, the most important being that Heaney actually lost his mother. No amount of software engineering can replace real human experience and emotion.

That said, many people will want to use the software and many others will not mind consuming its products in a world where anyone has the right and sometimes the incentive to produce almost anything that can be sold or given away.

However, even in a free market there are rules and requirements designed to help consumers make informed choices, and this is why all artificial intelligence writing should come with a label. The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, we have a whole century of precedent in industries that are as essential to human existence as writing.

Every piece of clothing, by law, must carry a label stating where it is made and what it is made of. This content labelling is the result of a series of laws passed in the 20th century as synthetic human-made fibres began to replace the staples of wool and cotton. It was deemed important by legislators that consumers knew what materials their clothes contained and how to properly care for them. And it’s increasingly important to know if a garment was made in Canada or, say, China.

The food labels we take for granted, including ingredients and nutritional value, are also the result of a century of legislation to protect consumers as food evolved in complexity and was processed and packaged, making it harder to see what it contained. After requiring the labelling of ingredients early in the 20th century, the 1938 U.S. Food, Drug, Cosmetic Act mandated that any artificial flavouring, colouring or chemical preservatives had to be listed on the label.

In recent times, food labelling has only grown more detailed and precise. As our environmental consciences and health concerns have deepened, a whole universe of certifications has grown up to serve us: Ocean Wise for sustainably caught fish; GF for gluten free; Organic for food grown without herbicides and pesticides; Non-GMO.

Just as consumers have the right to know if what they are consuming or wearing contains artificial ingredients or fibres, readers should have the right to know if the writing they’re reading has been created naturally or artificially.

To support this end, there should be some form of certification for human writing, just like there is for organic food. The resulting machine-free writing could come with one of these labels: MF for Machine Free or CH for Certified Human. Or perhaps, because that might be too complex to prove and implement, the burden of “declaration of manufacture” should be borne by the machine.

These writing machines, so adept at “reading” millions of words, could be required by legislation to include in their software a self-declaration stating at the end of each piece of “writing” that it was created by a machine in whole or in part. Just as food labels list percentages of fat, the machine could be required to declare what percentage is made by human, what by machine.

“Truth in labelling” in the brave new world of machine writing is something we should demand. It would certainly solve concerns about cheating in school. More importantly, it would alert us that while machine writing might look like writing, might even sound like writing, it would not be real, human-made writing. Nobody’s mother would have died in the making of it. It would be synthetic.

If we care enough about knowing what goes on our backs or into our stomachs, then surely we should care about knowing what we take into our hearts and minds.

This blog, like everything else on this website was written entirely by a human. No machines were involved.

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