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The Machines are Coming

Publishing’s understandable but untenable reluctance to embrace AI

In her wildly popular TED talk, “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz asks her audience how it feels to be wrong. Obvious responses include “dreadful”, “thumbs down”, and “embarrassing”, but Shulz points out that these are answers to a slightly different question—how it feels to realize you’re wrong. Of course, realizing you’re wrong can be devastating, but just being wrong itself doesn’t feel like that. In fact, just being wrong feels no different from being right.

Shulz’s insight here is that when we don’t know something, typically we don’t know that we don’t know. We operate quite blissfully under false assumptions about how the world is, until we come up against reality and realize in a revelatory moment that we are, in fact, mistaken. This can be relatively harmless, as in the case of finding out your keys really aren’t in your pocket. But not all cases are this benign. If you have an entire company and the livelihood of all its employees on the line, then operating under a faulty set of assumptions about the world can be catastrophic.

Consider the use of Artificial Intelligence. Data shows that at least a majority of people in almost every conceivable sector expects to switch to more AI usage in the near and mid-term:

In publishing too, there are modest signs of a systematic adoption of AI –  Companies are already employing AI to target readers in customized ways that a flesh and blood publisher cannot even dream of, enhance discoverability and targeting, and Amazon is even toying with creating books written entirely by AI. Despite this, many of the publishers I have talked to remain satisfied, or at best ambivalent, with their non-AI methods of production for the foreseeable future. In some cases, this is a completely understandable attitude brought on by prior experiences with tech companies that made claims about their capabilities that their technology couldn’t actually fulfill. But another significant reason seems to be a certain romanticization of the way things are, coupled with that all-too-human wishful thinking that any new problem can be addressed by simply assiduously adhering to the usual ways of working.

Unfortunately, to resist the inexorable approach of AI today is to be one of Shulz’s people who is wrong but doesn’t realize it, believing everything is alright even though things are already starting to shake up. As she points out, we can go some way without realizing how mistaken we are, but at some point the ground under us gives way and the truth becomes undeniable. For now, there’s still time to get in front of this trend and embrace AI on our own terms. But the window is closing.

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