Janie B. Cheaney: The rise of the machines | WORLD
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Janie B. Cheaney: The rise of the machines


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: The rise of the machines

AI will never have an original idea

Text from the ChatGPT page of the OpenAI website is shown in this photo, in New York, Feb. 2, 2023 Associated Press Photo/Richard Drew

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 8th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Maybe you’ve heard about ChatGPT. It’s a new artificial intelligence resource for writers. WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney experimented with the program for herself and she has some thoughts on the rise of the machines.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: Thirty-odd years ago, I engaged in therapy with a machine: a plain-text program designed to help depressed users work through their issues. Glowing letters on a blue screen asked, “How can I help you today?” I made up a problem, and every subsequent statement from me generated a question or an encouraging prompt, such as “Let me restate the issue,” or “How do you feel about that?” It was easy to imagine a therapist on the other side of the screen patiently drawing out my responses, until I realized we weren’t getting anywhere.

To anyone anxious about the rise of the machines, I have sort of good news and maybe bad news. A language model called ChatGPT has been causing waves of concern in faculty lounges and newsrooms across America. ChatGPT writes better than your average college freshman. It can churn out essays, editorials, articles, and project reports in grammatical, workmanlike prose: just give it an assignment and watch it work. Who needs writers?

ChatGPT is available free to the public while developers work out the bugs, so I checked it out on the Open AI website. The documentation explains, quote, “We’ve trained this model using Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback”—that is, over thousands of hours, the model absorbed paradigms of verbal interaction well enough to imitate it convincingly. That ability, combined with a world-wide web of information at its disposal, makes ChatGPT a word-juggling, essay-spewing, homework-dodging bad boy.

I began my session with a straightforward request: “Explain the debate between Athanasius and Pelagius.” The debate between Athanasius and Pelagius was a major controversy in the early Christian church that centered on the nature of human free will, original sin, and the role of divine grace in salvation, etc. Not bad. A personal question like “How can I persuade my girlfriend to marry me?” produced boilerplate endearments that would have melted any young lady halfway inclined.

But artistry and humor are beyond it. “Make a pun” yields a lame riddle and a definition of “pun.” The model’s notion of “witty dialogue” leaves Oscar’s Wilde’s reputation unchallenged. When it comes to creative thinking, ChatGPT doesn’t know anything and can’t leap from fact to application. It can only get there by coded pathways. What’s missing is the spark between synapses, the light-bulb brightness of an idea that echoes the mind of our master Creator.

The good news is that, however sophisticated its performance, AI will never have an original idea. The bad news? It might be able to fake it. I fear generations of students skipping over a vital discipline in order to lean on versions of ChatGPT. Writing is thinking: speaking for myself, I don’t think clearly until it’s black letters on white. I learned by trial-and-error with a pencil, not a program. Will outsourcing thought to a machine result in thinking like a machine?

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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