On Bullshit, And AI-Generated Prose

There’s a word for prose and speech that exist mostly just to fill the space

Clive Thompson

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A women holding up a cookie decorated as, and in the shape of, a “poop” emoji
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

AI text-generation tools have been getting into a bit of trouble lately.

Recently, OpenAI released “ChatGPT”, a quite remakable chatbot. It’s built atop GPT-3, OpenAI’s language model that’s very fluent at autocompleting and summarizing text. Denizens of the Internet quickly discovered the fun of getting ChatGPT to do weirdly creative tasks — like rewriting “Baby Got Back” in the style of Chaucer, or creating text games on the fly, or writing a sonnet about string cheese. I myself spent an evening getting ChatGPT to generate radio plays of famous historical figures arguing about what to have for dinner. It was pretty delightful!

But the problems begin when you require ChatGPT to be factually accurate.

When it comes to facts, the AI sometimes flies off the rails spectacularly. When the biology professor Carl T. Bergstrom asked ChatGPT to write a Wikipedia entry about him, it got basic dates of his career wrong, said he’d won awards he hadn’t, and claimed he held a professorship that doesn’t even exist. When Mike Pearl asked it what color were the uniforms of Napoleon’s Royal Marines, it utterly muffed it. (And OpenAI wasn’t the only AI running afoul of facts. A few weeks ago, Meta released Galactica, an AI it claimed could summarize and sift through scientific findings, but it mangled so much basic scientific info that Meta pulled it offline after only two days.)

Over at Stack Overflow, ChatGPT was causing even more havoc. Stack Overflow is a site where people post — and answer — questions about coding. But people started posting answers that had been written by ChatGPT, and many were incorrect; worse, they were often wrong in a subtle way. This meant that Stack Overflow’s moderators were suddenly having to spend hours carefully assessing this flood of AI-authored material.

The heads of Stack Overflow got so frustrated they made a blanket ban on any answers created by the ChatGPT …

Overall, because the average rate of getting correct answers from ChatGPT is too low, the posting of answers created by ChatGPT is substantially harmful to the site and to users who are asking or looking for

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net