13 January 2024

A Near-Luddite Tries Bing AI

My Windows 365 updated a few weeks ago, and there on reboot was Microsoft selling hard to check out Edge’s new AI tool. Come on, Edge said. Try making a fun holiday image.

Was I tempted? A little. Mostly, I regard the rise of Big AI such as large language models with a combination of dread (look out for the bad Terminator!) and intellectual curiosity at what advances these unlocks (hooray, it's the good Terminator!). The risks and rewards of AI’s future applications are for expert thinkers. AI’s impact on writing is more in my wheelhouse, and there was my writing laptop wanting me to check out Bing's Copilot.

I’ve never Venmo-ed money. Don't know how. Don’t even have the app. I don’t know how to deposit checks by smartphone scan. I don’t use Alexa or Siri, and our newer smart appliances aren’t set up on the home Wi-Fi. I’m doing swell without all that. I’m not a technophobe, though. I use voice remote for TV and my smartphone for the usual stuff: music, news, texts, video calls, pet photos, health monitoring, and so forth. These help me stay connected and get where I want to go faster.


As with all discussions, let's start from intellectual honesty. The modern writer has long been using AI. Internet search algorithms, word predictors, spell check, Grammarly plug-ins. It's all narrow AI. What’s new is AI’s computing power and availability to the masses. AutoCrit’s AI critiques your story and gives style comparables (full disclosure: I've started using AutoCrit’s free version to spot repeated words and phrases). Sudowrite’s Story Engine handles the writing for you, including that dreaded synopsis. Other tools abound, and that number will mushroom.

I write when I can carve out time. In a productive year, I’ll write a handful of stories (I wrote three in 2023). About half of those will be publishable with effort. AI can crank out stories 24/7. They're junk. Fine, AI has almost won literary prizes. That's one in a billion, from what I've seen. People submit this anyway. As their own work. I don’t understand that justification. Someone presses a button. A prompted algorithm spitting out words is no more authorship than is copying pages straight from a Dickens novel. Hell, the algorithm may have copied Dickens.

I despair of rot. AI will evolve to produce more natural prose. Even so, AI will never be imaginative. Insightful, sure, but AI has no mind with which to imagine. And it’s a copycat, even of itself. The more AI builds its dreck into its model, the more AI will reproduce dreckier dreck. Markets will struggle for quality and even survival. There's no human effort barrier to slow the AI onslaught. Let’s stay honest, though. Many readers won’t mind so long as AI entertains.


So in that mindset, I clicked the link to generate a holiday image. My command: a festive boiled custard drinking contest in old-time illustration style. Here’s its swing at my curveball:

generated by AI

generated by AI

generated by AI

Weird. But you know what? AI tried its robot best. And it brought fun.

Game on. I asked Edge to make a theoretical book cover of “Lord, Spare the Bottom Feeders,” a story of mine from AHMM a few years back. My prompt described the story as crime fiction with a few plot particulars about the lawyer character and let the tool rip. 

The tool returned an over-the-top cartoon cover with a generalissimo-type crime lord surrounded by central casting mafia goons, everyone armed as if up against the Untouchables and the Five Families and even the bad Terminator. Vivid, but it highlights important AI concerns. My prompt didn’t say what kind of crime ring was involved. I didn't mention guns. Fine. The tool made these assumptions. AI is teaching itself from an internet archive that, as we all know, includes significant biases and worse. Absent way more controls than we have today, AI is going to spread these biases rapid-fire.

AI is a parrot, so I re-prompted with a load more story specifics. The tool returned:

Okay, better-ish. It's still cartoonish tropes, but this one at least addresses the prompt about mussel smuggling. No lawyer, but props on the broken scales of justice. And it does grab attention, as a cover should do. 

I don’t worry for folks who design bad book covers. They need to find other gigs. I do worry for the many great cover designers on some level. Hopefully, those folks can lean into AI as a way to craft even better covers in less time.

For my next test, I took a story idea that has refused to gel in my head for months now. It’s about a guy getting initiated into the burly beard grooming life. As usual, the character came right to life. A workable plot hasn’t. So I prompted with:

Write an outline for a 3,000-word crime short story with three twists about a criminal who can't grow a beard despite trying.

AI returned (again, this is NOT my work):

"That sounds like an interesting premise for a crime story. Here is a possible outline for your short story:

  • Title: The Beardless Bandit
  • Genre: Crime/Comedy
  • Summary: A young man, Eddie, dreams of becoming a notorious criminal, but he has a problem: he can’t grow a beard. He believes that having a beard is essential for being a successful and respected criminal. He tries various methods to grow a beard, but nothing works. He decides to resort to drastic measures: he robs a bank wearing a fake beard. However, his plan goes awry when he encounters three unexpected twists.
  • Outline:
    • The story begins with Eddie preparing for his bank robbery. He has a fake beard that he bought online, a gun that he borrowed from his cousin, and a getaway car that he rented. He is nervous, but also excited. He thinks that this will be his big break into the criminal world.
    • He enters the bank, points his gun at the teller, and demands the money. He tries to act tough and menacing, but his voice cracks and his fake beard slips. The teller recognizes him as a regular customer and calls him by his name. Eddie panics and runs out of the bank, leaving behind his gun and his fake beard.
    • The first twist is that the bank was actually a front for a money laundering operation run by a powerful crime boss, Mr. Big. Mr. Big is furious that someone tried to rob his bank and orders his men to find and kill Eddie. He also wants his gun and his fake beard back, as they are valuable evidence.
    • The second twist is that the gun that Eddie borrowed from his cousin was actually a rare and antique weapon that belonged to a famous gangster, Historic Boss. The gun is worth millions of dollars and is sought after by collectors and criminals alike. Eddie’s cousin had stolen it from a museum and was planning to sell it to Mr. Big, but he lied to Eddie and told him it was a cheap replica.
    • The third twist is that the fake beard that Eddie bought online was actually a real beard that belonged to a famous actor, Major Celebrity. The beard was cut off by a crazed fan and sold on the internet. The beard is also worth millions of dollars and is sought after by fans and celebrities alike. Major Celebrity himself is looking for his beard and is willing to pay a huge reward for its return.
    • The story ends with Eddie being chased by Mr. Big’s men, the police, the museum security, and Major Celebrity’s agents. He manages to escape with the help of a friendly barber, who gives him a shave and a haircut. He realizes that he doesn’t need a beard to be a criminal, he just needs to be smart and brave. He decides to give up his criminal dreams and start a new life. He also returns the gun and the beard to their rightful owners and collects the rewards. He uses the money to buy a house, a car, and a dog. He names the dog Beardy."
    • — generated by AI

I changed one thing in AI’s summary for here. AI's fixation on famous people went as far as to use actual famous people’s names. Let’s leave them and their attorneys out of this.

AI's outline hangs together, mostly. Parts of this are even good. Resorting to a fake beard was something I hadn’t thought of, and that fake beard becoming a McGuffin is an actual twist. The stakes ramp up as stakes should, and the happy ending with Beardy made me grin.

There are problems.

AI crams in way too much plot for 3,000 words. The gun twist pulls the thing thematically out of whack. The friendly barber is funny, but fake beards don’t need to be shaved off. And you cannot run up to someone and cut an entire, reusable beard off their face. That’s either magic realism or horror.  

I didn’t ask AI to write the story. I won’t, and I won’t write “The Beardless Bandit” myself. This isn’t my idea, and I won't pretend otherwise. I do reserve the right to take inspiration from this.

I tried other story summary prompts and got repeated interesting nuggets and major plot holes. I was having fun. Did it feel like I’d created anything? No. It was like playing with a toddler while they explained their toys. I did feel creative-adjacent in a way. Using the tool forced me to consider prompt sharpness and to read the generated content critically.

In the debate about whether or not AI undermines and supplants fiction writers, I’m still in some despair. AI's expansion is a cycle that threatens to drag us downward. Downward, but not out. Fatalism is a human quality and usually a mistake. Enhanced AI tools can help us carbon-based writers. We’ll be better researchers, better self-editors, better brainstormers. These same AI tools are great at spotting missed cancers and asymptomatic Alzheimer’s. If AI can do that, there is a place for it to boost our craft.

We’ll need to find that place. Soon, because the AI debate is pointless. The technology is here. What we humans do with it– and about it– will determine whether we get good Terminators or bad ones. Until then, this near-

Luddite will get back to my Venmo-less life.


  1. Fellow Luddite and Venmo-less lass agrees with you, Bob.

  2. In a way, AI can imagine, although the present generation has its own routine, building a matrix of methods and then eliminating those that haven’t been tried yet.

    I’ve not asked AI to create a story and I probably won’t, but I find ChatGPT most useful for edge case research. If I want to know who won the 1932 series, I’m going to look it up with Bing or Google. But if I can’t piece together enough particulars for either to cough up an answer, ChatGPT suddenly becomes more useful, maybe 75% effective.

    In the early months and to a degree still true, I’ve asked the AI to deliver pictures like you have, with sometimes bizarre results– 3 arms, arms on backwards (like reversing arms on a Barbie doll), and once randomly dropping delivery trucks into a medieval scene.

    Public-use AIs have been trained to reject anything that has a whiff of sex without regard to what it’s being asked to accomplish. I received a sharp rebuke for having something related to sex amid a list of keywords when I asked what its problem was.

    When I asked it to portray a pencil sketch of a father carrying his teen daughter up a staircase, it had trouble figuring out who was who, up with down, age of daughter, and gave me the bizarre backward arms as mentioned above.

    However… At the end of March, my article will feature a dozen pictures like yours all generated by AI. Not brilliant but passable.

  3. I'm a pessimist on this, Bob. I think our days as fiction writers are numbered. I know that I retired from teaching fiction writing at college just in time, last year. Already I'm hearing that students are cheating to beat the band, and everything must be done in the class now (meaning tests instead of reports and essays.) I worry that there will be no careers left to them, or at least careers that we know now. I figure there's nothing we can do to stop it, but boy, I fear for mankind.

  4. Bob, does AI know that women hold up half the sky? I think the AI paradigm shift will make people stupider a lot faster than it will make AI smart enough (ie sentient) to be worthy to take over.


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