Why AI Can’t Replace Us: Exploring Human Creativity

Beverley Sylvester
11 min readAug 4, 2023

An editorial on AI, the SCP Foundation, humility, ownership, and art.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The Flaws in a System Where AI Makes Art:

With so much national focus on AI-as-creator (the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike, the seeming omnipresence of AI-generated visual art, the ways in which ChatGPT are changing the landscape of academia, even the Black Mirror episode “Joan is Awful”) it can feel incredibly disheartening to be an artmaker today. It feels dystopian, Bradburyian perhaps. As a writer, I have found myself asking: what’s the point? I know that people are not replaceable as the source of creativity, but I wonder how many pieces of my writing have already been fed to the Internet Powers That Be without my knowledge, which might be teaching AI how to write like me. I do not believe humans are replaceable creators, but I worry that so much of society does believe this that we will be replaced nonetheless. So, what is the point?

It is becoming more and more of a possibility each day that a language-generating AI program could have already written the poem that I decide to write tomorrow. This idea makes me feel offended and deeply protective. These are my words, my unique, original, authentic thoughts, and how dare a computer write that which belongs to me. This feeling is related to the disappointment I experience when I discover something I had intended to write has already been written, that an idea I thought was solely mine was already published by someone else. Now I am less creative, less interesting. My writing is less valuable because the thoughts are not new and revelatory. The same is true for all art. Every chord has been written, every melody conceptualized at some point by some person. So why compose?

This is perhaps an overused illustration, but I think of the Tibetan Buddhist monks and their sand mandalas and Dissolution Ceremonies. I think of dancers and musicians who perform improvisational shows without recordings, movement and music that is beautiful in its creation and experience and has no record, no proof. These are lessons to me that art’s biggest value exists in process, not product. The act of creation is a gift to those involved in the creation, and that is why humans must continue to make art despite the fact that AI might be able to arrive at a similar product. The process of artmaking is a process of integration, learning, growing. Playwrights put ourselves inside people with whom we disagree so that we can write honest and challenging characters — this is an act of profound empathy and self-growth. Dancers experience embodiment and oneness with self and sound and other and sensation — this is an act of rooting and stretching and expanding. And on and on. Every person is creative in some way: scientists, custodians, chefs, welders, drivers, mathematicians — regardless of job, calling, or passion, human beings are creative creatures inventing solutions and questions and all sorts of wonderfully necessary and unnecessary, ordinary and extraordinary things every day. This is essential. It is beautiful. It cannot be replaced, even if the product of these labors of innovation and creation can be.

Unfortunately, we live in a world with money. This means folks with traditionally creative careers cannot afford (literally and figuratively) to do their important work without getting paid. Most of us have dedicated tremendous amounts of resources (time, money, etc.) into getting the education and experience needed to hone our respective crafts and create meaningful work that we might share with others. The sharing, the experiencing, of art can be just as human and beautiful and world-enhancing as its creation. Because we must have money to exist, we must receive payment for these labors. It would be unethical to write an essay about creation in an AI-infused world without addressing the blatant, heinous immorality of refusing pay to folks in creative careers by replacing them with AI. Not only is this replacement a deep moral failing as it does not acknowledge the importance of creation that we already discussed, but it is an assault on many individuals and communities who offer so much to the world. In their artistic efforts to understand themselves, those around them, the environment, spirituality, etcetera, they are bringing knowledge and empowerment to people all over the place. They are essential. We are essential, and removing us from the ability to sustain ourselves with our essential work is detrimental to so many things: our quality of life and financial security, our authentic understanding and expression of selfhood, and the ways in which our integrated selves and our creative work go into the world and make meaningful change.

SCP: A Lesson in Humility and Ownership:

A couple of weeks ago, my partner showed me the SCP Foundation online for the first time. Apparently, many Internet-literate folks are aware of SCP, but I was not. I fell quickly into a deep rabbit hole. For those who don’t know, SCP is a massive online repository of science fiction, horror, dystopian, and other related genres of stories and multimedia creations that all reference fictional (historically mythical, legendary, or newly contrived) creatures under the guise of leaked secret government documents. While it is possible to find the original author on the different articles/entries in SCP, it requires some digging — and even then, that digging often leads to a silly or otherwise pseudonymous username. Once shared on SCP, articles/entries can be edited, shared, or built upon for countless iterations. The site’s guidelines state that any and all content on SCP may be included in someone’s work (as story ideas for films, books, etc.) as long as SCP is cited. The authors do not receive compensation for this. They do not receive individual credit. Many of the pieces on SCP are extremely well done: creative, thoughtful, well-written, sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying, beautiful work. Some of the pages involve interactive components that clearly involved someone using hard-earned web development skills to create. And these folks share their work for anyone to read and even to use and adapt without credit, just for the joy and necessity of creating and sharing with community. Discovering SCP was one of the most humbling things I have ever experienced. These creators did not care about ownership. They did not care about their ideas being used by others. They cared only about the process and the sharing. I cried.

The humility of free-form sharing and expansion of stories without credit is a reminder of our universally shared roots in oral storytelling practices (which are still alive today in some communities, but largely began to disappear with the mass-education and dissemination of written language). I again draw on an easy example: Homer and the Greek myths. While the Homeric Question (debate over who Homer was and if Homer was a single writer or not) is a persistent point of discussion among classicists and myth-enthusiasts, we must recognize that this debate surrounding the personhood of Homer exists in reference to the specific poetry within The Iliad and The Odyssey — we all know that the Greek pantheon and myths surrounding them existed as oral tradition long before anyone wrote them down. Modern mythic retellings are the recent link in an ancient history of storyteller (then speaker, now writer) taking some established characters and basic plot points and filling in all the gaps connecting those herself. I see SCP as an outcropping of oral tradition — an open invitation to edit and grow stories and characters over time, indefinitely, with the only necessary qualification for this adaptation being passion. (Side note: everyone interested in literature or stories or history or anthropology or linguistics or speech should go read Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word by Walter J. Ong).

I feel that to be responsible I must here address plagiarism. Plagiarism is bad (duh). It is good that educational institutions emphasize plagiarism as morally reprehensible. We should not claim to have invented or created something that someone else invented or created. This conversation, however, is becoming much more complicated now that language-generating AI programs have made it easy for a computer to write something for you. In this case, the issue is not one of theft, and since it is not impacting another human by taking their work or their ideas and putting your name on them, the moral problem is one of integrity and not one of harm done to another person. It is, however, still harm done to the person “writing” her school assignments by copy/pasting websites and papers into a program and then signing her name to the paper it spits out in response. It is robbing the student of the process of learning, and the connections that the learning would allow the student to make in her life, connections between future studies, conversations with loved ones, etcetera. Perhaps we should look at a pressure-cooking one-size-fits-all public education system that promotes product over process as part of the issue here, where a student feels that there is no benefit or value in the learning itself but only in the grade that an assignment will elicit. This is an important conversation, but a digression from the main point of this paper, so I will move on.

I also must mention again that because we live in a world with money (ugh!), we also live in a world with ownership and intellectual property. This means that despite the beauty of spaces like SCP, a place where talented creators at all levels can volunteer to share their work anonymously, we cannot return to a pre-literacy world where stories and ideas need not be credited to specific creators. Even with SCP, where authors chose to publish anonymously, the foundation should be credited when an idea is drawn from its archives and used in any published, funded, or otherwise publicly disseminated and/or compensated work. This is an act of humility and of integrity on the part of the author drawing inspiration from SCP. We must acknowledge that we are all a part of a continuing conversation, and this is beautiful! Citation matters, not just for reasons of integrity and plagiarism, but also because it is an indication of the deep, incredible interconnectedness of all people and our experiences and expressions. It is an act of gratitude. It is a reminder that we do not and cannot exist as completely isolated, unique-in-thought-and-deed individuals, nor should we want to (despite what our hyper-individualist society might want us to believe). Also, citation can be an act of activism, highlighting individuals or organizations doing good work in the world and pointing folks toward them.

Creator as Vessel:

So here we are: what we make might not be truly original because either a computer or a person in the past or a person in the present has already said/done/thought of it, and our individuality might be imagined because we are really part of an ancient and eternal continuum of makers, and if we lived in a better world (one without money) then ownership might only matter because of pridefulness and our need to be recognized and praised, and yet — we who are the makers of things matter so deeply and completely to the whole world not only because sharing what we have created/performed might help someone feel seen and understood or might educate people to the perspectives of others, but also because the act of creation makes us more integrated beings capable of relating to others in deeply meaningful ways. There is one remaining concept I must share which I feel is even more humbling than AI or SCP. This is the notion of artist as vessel, not originator. This notion relies on some belief (however small) in the spiritual, be that God or a powerful Universe or the human soul or magic or even in just the deep interconnectedness of all people across time.

In episode 215 of the podcast We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle, the poet (and prophet, in my opinion)

says that they are not afraid that they will leave too much writing undone when they die. They believe that when someone dies their ideas persist in the universe for some living writer to hear and make into poetry. Gibson says: “I think almost all art is made by the dead and we don’t know it.” Author and activist Alice Walker dedicates The Color Purple “To the Spirit: Without whose assistance / Neither this book / Nor I / Would have been / Written.” She concludes this incredible novel with a note that she signs “A.W., author and medium.” I love this. Her creativity belongs to the Spirit and is channeled through her onto the page. In the prologue of The Body is Not an Apology, activist and writer says “The words always had their own plans. Me, I was just a vessel.” All of this is true.

I think there is no humility greater than that which is required of us when we consider that inspiration is a gift given to us and that all of our best creations are those which came through us, not by us. I think art-making is, for many, a contemplative and spiritual practice because it involves connecting with tiny interior parts of ourselves (which are holy) and huge exterior concepts (which are also holy). I think the act of integration and analysis and construction and anything that we might call “inspired” comes from our ability to tap into divinity, hear what it has to say, and translate it into something that human people can understand (a delicious meal, a comfortable chair, a tight hug). Maybe the best creators aren’t the best because they have the most amazing, original thoughts that come completely and solely from the depths of their brilliant minds (these thoughts don’t exist), but instead it is because they are the best listeners to the universe. The best excavators of meaning. And maybe all of the countless hours that artistic folks spend learning and reading and practicing and going over feedback and rewriting/reshooting/redoing, etcetera, maybe those hours are really, at their core, time spent learning to hear what the Spirit (or whatever you believe in) is telling us and whittling it down to the truest expression of that divine idea that we are capable of making. Maybe the best artists are really just the best translators from ethereal into human. And maybe this means we don’t actually own anything at all, unless we own everything, because our personhood/consciousness/humanness has contributed in equal part to this divinity as everyone else’s has. (I am reminded here of texts I have read in the past written by Indigenous people about the issues with colonialist notions of ownership and land not as something shared and holy but as something to be conquered and put to service.)

This, of course, does not negate the important things we’ve already discussed about artists needing and deserving to be paid and about plagiarism being wrong. It does, however, open us up to seeing our value as creators not contingent on capitalist-centered measures like how much we have produced or how well it was publicly received, but instead contingent on how much our making has gotten into our essence and changed how we see and interact with the world and ourselves and whatever Bigness exists that is divine and ties us to one another in complicated, wonderful ways.

This, dear reader, is the point. Despite AI, we must continue to create. We must continue to open ourselves up to divinity. We must continue proclaiming the holy part of us that recognizes the holy part of every other person and thing. This is something that I am confident no computer will ever be able to do. We are not replaceable, but this is not because we are completely original thinkers with a monopoly on interesting ideas and creations. It is because we are fleshy, messy, complicated vessels that can translate the messages of our ancestors and the messages of the holiness within us and the messages of our community and the messages of our bodies into art that we might share so that it can move folks to compassion and understanding. We are not replaceable, not because we are necessary and individual — but because we are not.

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Beverley Sylvester

Playwright, poet, composer, musician, dramaturg, artist, actor. Find more about me at bfsylvester.com :)