curtAIn: Poirot’s Next Case
My first two books in the Kamil Rahman series were anchored in the Tandoori Knights restaurant. Readers seemed to enjoy this location, along with its setting in Brick Lane, within the eclectic environs of London’s East End. Although familiar as Banglatown, with its thriving restaurant and culture scene, this area has seen many changes over time. Jewish entrepreneurs who fled the pogroms in Europe came here after the industrial revolution in the late 1800s and made a massive impact on the rag trade. Now, with the influx of tech entrepreneurs to Old Street (aka Silicon Roundabout), the area is transforming yet again. I was fascinated by these parallels and decided to link them to the investigations in my latest novel, The Detective, where an Artificial Intelligence entrepreneur from Shoreditch is found dead in a construction site, which leads to the discovery of three Ashkenazi skeletons, over a hundred years old.
As I researched AI for the novel, I grew increasingly alarmed. It became clear to me that we were in the midst of another industrial revolution – with all its benefits and dangers – and I weaved this into the plot, secretly glad that some of the horrors I was writing about were unlikely to happen for a decade or more. Then, after the book had gone to print, to my consternation, ChatGPT and MidJourney were unleashed on the world.
These tools allows us to have human-like conversations with a chatbot. Need to write a best man’s speech? Compose an ad jingle? Design a book cover? Just ask the software and it’ll do it for you in seconds, with often impressive results. It feeds off the entire internet and learns as it goes along. Its applications are innumerable and unfathomable across almost all industries, and many leaders now fear AI’s rise is uncontainable and could pose an existential threat to humanity. My story was coming true.
On a more prosaic level, as an author, I started wondering about its potential impact on publishing. So, to understand what it could do in this area, I asked ChatGPT itself. Its answer was all-encompassing – it would transform content creation, editing, proofreading, illustration and marketing. It even said it could ‘generate’ (not write) books! Should this come to pass (and it is highly likely to), it will lead to the loss of thousands of jobs, and a complete restructuring of the business side of the industry.
But I believe it will also affect the creative end. It will be able to write acceptable genre fiction in the next few years. After all, most crime novels have a similar formula: someone is murdered, the detective arrives, they search for clues, rule out possibilities, and reveal the identity of the murderer in the end. This plot needs to be pacy and peppered with red herrings, plot twists, strong characterisation, and an unusual setting. Since the technology works on pattern recognition, what better area for it to excel? As ChatGPT ingests and learns Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, I’m certain it will be able to generate the next Poirot, complete with red herrings and plot twists; with judicious human editing, it is likely to be indistinguishable from one written by Christie herself.
So, what does this mean for us as readers and writers of crime novels? Well, if the books are engaging and exciting, then readers may not mind (or even know?). But of course, it has profound repercussions for authors. Most of us have already been using crude versions of AI in our work – spellchecks, grammar checks and so on. Some of the more sophisticated writing software also helps with style, pacing and structure. Now, with the implementation of this advanced AI, it’s not a far cry for the programme to suggest plots, identify and plug holes or, if you input an idea, for it to write a chapter for you. Once we reach this point, what’s the function of the writer? One who gives instructions to a machine that then spits out pages? That’s typing, not writing.
And this is the way things are heading. So how do we stay ahead of it? Well, I believe that the one thing AI may not be able to do convincingly is really understand human beings and human nature. It could write about what the protagonist and the antagonist do, how they do it and where they do it, but it cannot communicate at a deep level why they do it. And that why is what makes the best novels. What excites me when I’m writing my books is the why that drives Kamil, Anjoli, the murderers and their interactions with each other. They often surprise me as I am writing them by saying and doing things I wouldn’t expect them to. This, I suspect, is the weakness that the algorithms behind the AI are not equipped to deal with. How to create the unexpected that initially surprises the reader but then has them realise it is true, lived, human experience.
So, while I dread the onslaught of dozens of new Poirots and Marples, I still have hope.