Creative narratives in the age of AI – The speculative future of short story writing at ESSEC and beyond

By Michael Kouklakis,  Director – Department of Languages & Cultures. 

On a sunny day in the first week of June, as the academic year of 2023 was coming to an end, several students, teachers and staff made their way to the Learning Center where they gathered for an awards ceremony to celebrate the 15th edition of the Short Story Contest – one of our most important and long-standing pedagogical initiatives. In nurturing the art of storytelling amongst our bright, talented students and encouraging the writing of original, creative fiction, this endeavour has carved out a unique space in higher education in general and in business schools and the Grandes Ecoles of France in particular. This much is stated proudly on the back cover of each copy of the short story book we publish every year and distribute during the end-of-the-year event we organize. The blurb on the back cover touts this initiative’s longevity and success and ends confidently with ‘There are many more tales to be told…’ However, with the sudden emergence of AI platforms in our daily lives and accelerated development of their capabilities, an unexpected question has arisen which never had to be asked before for the simple reason that the answer would have seemed so self-evident. Yes, there are many more tales to be told … but who will be telling them?

15th edition of the Short Stories awards ceremony, in June 2023

The advent of ChatGPT and initial concerns

With the advent of artificial intelligence and AI language models such as ChatGPT, the future of our short story writing initiative has suddenly become uncertain. Feeding them the right prompts and very specific instructions, such platforms can produce a variety of creative narratives within seconds that cannot be identified as AI generated with any degree of certainty. Given the ease with which such artificial intelligence texts are generated, some students will be tempted to use these free, readily accessible online platforms to pass off texts that they did not write as their own.

While many appreciate the opportunity to be creative by writing linguistically stylized fiction, some students would rather not invest the time and energy actually to do so. Some find the task (too) daunting, while others do not necessarily see the point as they feel that this activity has no direct, immediate, practical link with their career aspirations despite abundant evidence to the contrary. To those who feel this way, we make the case that writing fiction in a business school is a worthwhile activity. As one former winner of the short story contest contended in an awards ceremony speech,

‘We need managers with some amount of imagination, some amount of understanding and empathy a quality that fiction fosters and encourages. We need on the other hand, writers with some knowledge of the world, with interesting experiences, with grit.’

In practical terms, how have we actually encouraged and guided our students to write their stories up until now?

For the past 15 years, we compel an entire incoming class of 400 students to write an original, creative work of fiction of 1500 words. We discuss and explore the creative process and sources of inspiration, we use a wide variety of creative writing prompts, we delve deep into the ways the theme (an expression or phrase) can be used and have them associate it with various literary, cinematographic, artistic references and / or personal experiences. They then go on to write one paragraph that they can share by reading it aloud in class, and encourage them to continue in this vein until they finalize it and submit work they can be proud of.

How will AI change our approach to writing in the classroom?

Teachers are now scrambling, trying to find ways to meet the challenges posed by such AI platforms. More time will be devoted to open discussions on the importance of academic integrity and intellectual honesty. With respect to creative writing, the focus will shift to establishing learning environments that minimize the risk of plagiarism. How? Some teachers will increase the degree of complexity in the instructions / guidelines / requirements of any pieces of written work thereby rendering the use of AI language models much more time-consuming and cumbersome for students to use. Others will strive to integrate these platforms in their sessions through some form of transparent, ongoing, collaborative process. For them, this seems more desirable than constantly surveilling students or compelling them to write their work using paper and pen exclusively in class. Many creativity researchers are even proposing a collaborative vision of creativity involving AI and humans.

Human-generated text vs AI-generated text

While AI models are capable of imitating existing writing styles and structure and of generating coherent narratives that follow established patterns, they are, according to some online commentators (see AI Writing Tools vs Human Writers: Which is Better?), less adept than humans are at producing novel ideas, complex characters and surprising plot twists. Capturing subtle nuances and creating original stories as in human-generated texts that reflect writers’ unique perspectives, cultural sensibilities and deep understanding of the human experience is challenging for AI models that ‘simply’ mimic pre-existing works. After all, how do you replicate the ether between the neurons which inform and guide the creative conscious that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Sentience, AI and storytelling

Beyond the immediate and pressing concerns raised by AI language models related to intellectual honesty, academic integrity, copyright infringement and the use of appropriate pedagogical approaches when teaching lies the underlying issue and recurring fear of machines replacing humans. Storytelling is a fundamentally human endeavor and has been exclusively so ever since we developed the capacity for cognitive thinking. We value the stories we recount.  We do so in large part because they explore what it means to be human. They are recounted by living, breathing, sentient beings who have the capacity to actually imagine, experience and feel what is being recounted and – like their intended audience – be transported on an emotional level. In this, there is an authenticity. Crafted with varying degrees of skill they are authentic, real and not simply imitations, echoes of voices past and present, shadows of shadows. And herein lies the point that is disconcerting. A non-sentient entity, an artificial intelligence devoid of feelings and emotions uses the language of humans, drawing from databases that contain thousands upon thousands of works from real authors, to churn out human-like text that recounts aspects of the human experience. There is a very troubling ‘disconnect’ between what is being recounted and who / what is doing the recounting. Case in point. I asked ChatGPT to write a five hundred-word paragraph in the style of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Below is an extract:

This non-sentient AI prevails upon us to recognize the power of empathy and the role of compassion as a universal language without the ability to feel either. I can tell you what pain is but unless you have experienced it, you will never know what pain truly means. The text it produced is an imitation generated from what its access to Adichie’s body of work and others’ analyses of her work enabled its algorithm to deliver but without the necessary sincerity and the fundamental understanding of the concepts, it wields so effortlessly.

One fine day….

For anyone immersed in or familiar with the tropes of sci-fi literature and cinema and with speculative fiction, it is not difficult to imagine a not-so-distant future where AI becomes sentient. This would mean an AI that will be able to feel, to desire, to fear, to ask questions about its place in the universe and per chance even dream. If or when that day comes, then AI platforms will be able to create original, authentic stories (as opposed to generating humanlike text by pure imitation) that would take their rightful place in the rich tradition of human storytelling.