Monday, March 20, 2023

Trying Out ChatGPT


Since the artificial-intelligence laboratory OpenAI made its latest major project ChatGPT available to the public last fall, the chatbot's popularity, not to say notoriety, has soared.  Chatbots—software that responds to human-typed inputs with conversation-like output—are nothing new, but the combination of speed, apparent knowledge, and polish with which ChatGPT responds to a huge variety of "prompts"—basically, commands to write something about a subject—have attracted probably millions of users, a ton of publicity, and expressions of concern.


One of the most understandable concerns is that students will simply take any given writing assignment, put it into ChatGPT, and cut-and-paste the result into their homework.  Plagiarism is a chronic problem in education, and universities across the world have been holding special meetings to deal with the advent of ChatGPT and how to detect and prevent such cheating. 


I wish them luck, because when I tried the system this morning on a topic that's very familiar to me, it came up with verbiage of such high quality that I wouldn't hesitate to use it as the lead section of a research proposal, for instance.  That is, if I didn't mind the fact that I was using some computer's synthetic prose rather than my own. 


In case you want to judge for yourself how ChatGPT did, here's a sample.  The prompt I gave it was this:  "Describe ball lightning in two paragraphs or less (under 250 words) and quote experts in the field." 


The response begins, "Ball lightning is a rare and mysterious phenomenon in which a glowing sphere of light appears during thunderstorms and floats through the air for several seconds to several minutes before disappearing."  So far, so good.  It goes on for 136 words, which is under 250, and quotes only one expert, John Abrahamson.  The quote itself is a long one—57 words—and seems to be taken from an interview that I was not immediately able to identify by typing it into Google, a favorite trick I used to pull with student essays that I suspected of being copied wholesale from the Internet.  Either Google doesn't do that type of search very well anymore, or ChatGPT may have used some obscure transcription of a radio or TV interview, but not even part of the original two sentences shows up in my search.  So I simply have to take ChatGPT's word for it that it's accurately quoting Prof. Abrahamson, a New Zealand chemical engineer who published a well-publicized theory of ball lightning around 2000.


And that points out one of the big problems with some forms of AI:  they behave like black boxes, and figuring out how they work and where they get their information can be difficult or simply impossible.  I suppose I could go back and ask ChatGPT where it got the quote, but then I wouldn't have time to finish this column. 


So is access to powerful software such as ChatGPT a threat to the integrity of education and the livelihood of copywriters and grant writers everywhere, or on the other hand a great boon to the millions of people who can't put two coherent sentences together?  To some extent, I'd have to say "all of the above." 


Whatever else the ChatGPT developers have done, I have to congratulate them on the generally flawless grammar in all ChatGPT outputs I've seen so far.  They must have come up with some way of assessing the grammatical quality of sources and picking only the best ones, because believe me, there is a lot of bad English grammar out there, especially in the reams of technical publications that attract authors whose first language isn't English.  So that's the good news.


What is perhaps not so good news is that lots of us could become dependent on ChatGPT and its successors.  Now, is this a dependence that is harmless, like our dependence on pocket calculators instead of doing long division by hand?  Or is it a malignant dependence such as some people have for porn or alcohol or video games, distorting their lives and inhibiting human flourishing? 


My first impression is that the main hazard so far of using ChatGPT is that of letting the machine do one's writing and thinking too.  Now, technically, I let my pocket calculator do my thinking when I use it, but the kind of thinking it does is extremely mechanical—that's why mechanical calculators were successful—and it's no loss to my mental integrity to outsource the taking of square roots to a machine. 


But expressing a complicated original idea in clear prose is something that has thus far been reserved for humans.  If I take out the word "original," it appears that ChatGPT can do as good as or better than your average human being at expressing complicated ideas clearly.  And of course, original is a relative term, as nobody can come up with a fourth primary color, for example.  We quickly get into philosophical waters here, but I will leave it with the Christian observation that God is the only Person who can truly originate things from nothing.  All so-called human inventions and discoveries are the unearthing or understanding of things and ideas that have always been latent in the universe, waiting for us to find them. 


I don't know whether some puckish mathematician has yet typed into ChatGPT, "Prove Goldbach's conjecture true or false."  Goldbach's conjecture is the proposition that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes.  It's one of those things that seems like it ought to be true, and nobody can find a counterexample, but nobody so far has been able to prove it one way or the other.  From everything I understand about ChatGPT, it would come up with a lot of verbiage, and maybe equations, but as it simply pulls from whatever is already out there on the Internet (and according to its developers, it's skimpy on anything after 2021), if a proof isn't out there it's not likely to come up with one.


So the mathematicians are safe.  For the rest of us, I'm not so sure.


Sources:  A good description of ChatGPT and instructions on how to use it were published on the website Digital Trends at  I also referred to a list of ten hardest unsolved math problems at (You don't think I really go around worrying about Goldbach's conjecture, do you?)

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