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Adobe's Scott Belsky on AI and the Storytelling Soul

One of the most valuable things we can do is take a step back and ask ourselves: What is AI really good at, and where do my human skills bring the most value?

In April, Casey Neistat — one of YouTube’s most prolific vloggers — made an unusual video.

Titled “A Day in Downtown Manhattan,” the video featured Neistat riding his electric skateboard around downtown Manhattan, unironically taking his audience to tourist traps below 14th street — the Oculus, Battery Park, the Charging Bull on Wall Street.

“Let’s take a quick look inside Brookfield Place, one of my favorite spots in downtown Manhattan,” he says, walking into the Battery Park shopping mall, looking more bewildered than a Swifty at a Jets game.  

For Neistat's fans, the video was disorientedly basic—the vlog version of a pumpkin spice latte.

Once it was over, Neistat addressed the camera and explained what he’d just made. Every line of dialogue and shot had been scripted by GPT-4.

“That was the worst video I ever made,” said Neistat. “That video sucked because it had no humanity. It had no soul.”

Scott Belsky — Adobe’s illustrious Chief Strategy Officer — told this story at the end of his keynote at the Propelify conference this past Thursday. In some ways, it was surprising. Belsky had just spent 15 minutes optimistically explaining how AI would usher in a new era of creativity, creating limitless personalized experiences.

“That was the worst video I ever made,” said Neistat. “That video sucked because it had no humanity. It had no soul.”

But like many of us, Belsky has conflicting feelings about AI.

Belsky explained that Neistat’s story “resonated with a lot of the feedback that I'm getting from a lot of great creatives that I admire that are using this technology. They are realizing that as good as this technology is, it's really bad at counterintuitive, soulful things. It's bad at things that conjure up emotion. It's bad at things that make us find meaning in something that we didn't expect."

“And so that soulfulness, I think, is something we'll crave more than ever," Belsky continued. "We're going to crave these craft experiences. We’re going to crave storytelling … which goes against a lot of what I just said [earlier in this talk].”

Belsky’s internal conflict resonated with me.

Like Belsky, I’m bullish on AI's possibilities for creatives. But he also perfectly captured its biggest shortcoming: AI-generated content has no soul.

What is soulful content?

“Soul” is an immeasurable quality that many AI proponents I know would sneer at, and yet, if you’ve asked ChatGPT to do creative work from scratch, you know it. You feel it. Something is missing.

By the dictionary definition, soulfulness is about emotion. But I think it’s about more than that — it’s rooted in human experience.

Neistat captures this well at the end of his video. In explaining what AI can't do, he references Ghostface Killah’s All That I Got Is You — a seminal piece of lyrical storytelling for elder millennials and Gen Xers. When Ghostface Killah raps:

Sadly, daddy left me at the age of six

I didn't know nothin' but mommy neatly packed his shit

She cried, and grandma held the family down

I guess mommy wasn't strong enough, she just went down

Check it, fifteen of us in a three-bedroom apartment

Roaches everywhere, cousins and aunts was there

Four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head

I didn't like to sleep with Jon-Jon he peed the bed

The song hits you hard because it’s vivid and darkly funny, but also because it's real. We can feel that it's based on his personal experience.

It’s very possible that, given the proper prompts or enough tries, GPT-4 could generate lyrics with the same general shape. But it wouldn’t hit the same.

Why this matters

AI's capabilities are accelerating quickly. One of the most valuable things we can do is take a step back and ask ourselves: What is AI really good at, and where do my human skills bring the most value?

If you look at the near horizon, AI will soon be better than us at 95% of tasks. It'll analyze data better than us. Code faster than us. Copy-edit more accurately than us. Brainstorm more ideas than we ever could.

But AI's skills are also a jagged frontier. It's great at some tasks you wouldn't expect and bad at some things you'd expect it to master.

Via Ethan Mollick

AI will work for us the best when we learn how to delegate the tasks that it does better and faster than us, and then use the time we get back to double down on the satisfying human-centric work that gives us the most joy.

The great news for storytellers everywhere is that telling stories with a soul — stories that connect with people, based on our unique human experience — is going to sit outside that jagged frontier for the foreseeable future, until AI gains sentience. (At which point, things are going to get really nuts.)

By working with AI to take on the BS work that distracts us, we have the opportunity to spend more time telling stories that matter than ever before.

What could be better than that?

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