For the past several weeks, I’ve been hearing about chatGPT, a program that uses artificial intelligence and a vast catalog of data to create readable material. I didn’t want to believe it at first, and images of vintage robots popped into my head.
Then I read a couple of articles in today’s newspaper about school systems and teachers worrying that their students might be using the program to generate their essays and term papers for them. That made me wonder just how good such robot writing could be. So I decided to see for myself.
I went to the chatGPT website, created a free account, and played with it for a while. I entered scenarios featuring two or three characters, some sort of conflict, and a setting. Then I asked the program to write a short scene based on that input.
Shockingly, it responded quickly and with reasonably good material. I then added embellishments to the characters, their nationality, or new details about the setting and directed the program to revise the scene.
Bingo! In a matter of moments, the updated material appeared on my screen.
Here’s a quick, two-step example:
First instruction set:
My contribution: Black Bart, a notorious gunslinger wanted in several Western states bumps into Wade Watkins, a rancher with a short temper and a sawed-off shotgun. The two argue over who should apologize: Bart for not looking where he’s going, or Wade for not keeping his feet clear of the walk space. Write the argument in a short scene in the saloon.
Here’s chatGPT’s response: Wade Watkins was leaning against the bar in the saloon, nursing a whiskey when Black Bart walked in. Bart, not noticing Wade, bumped into him, spilling some of the rancher’s drink.
Wade spun around, his face red with anger. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at Bart.
“Sorry, I wasn’t watchin’ where I was goin’,” Bart replied, unperturbed.
“You’re damn right you weren’t!” Wade retorted. “You oughta watch where you’re goin’ in a crowded place like this. And you oughta apologize for spillin’ my drink.”
Bart raised an eyebrow. “And what about you? You oughta keep your feet clear of the walk space.”
The two men stared at each other, the tension in the air palpable. Neither was willing to back down or apologize first.
Finally, Wade broke the silence. “I ain’t apologizin’ for nothin’. If anyone should be apologizin’, it’s you for bumpin’ into me.”
Bart grinned. “Well, I ain’t apologizin’ either. Looks like we got ourselves a stalemate.”
The bartender, who had been watching the exchange with interest, decided to step in. “Gentlemen, there’s no need to argue. How about I buy you both a drink and we call it even?”
Wade and Bart reluctantly agreed and the bartender poured them each a shot of whiskey. The two men clinked their glasses and the tension dissipated, but the glares they shot each other made it clear that the argument was far from over.
My reaction? Surprise. It wasn’t great literature, but for a first draft based on limited input, it wasn’t bad. So I decided to up the ante a bit and add more detail.
Second instruction set:
My added input: Revise the scene and add an attractive, flirtatious barmaid with whom both men have dallied. Put the scene in her point of view.
Here’s chatGPT’s response: As the barmaid, Lola, walked over to the bar, she couldn’t help but overhear the heated argument between Black Bart and Wade Watkins. She had seen this kind of thing plenty of times before, and usually, a drink or two was enough to diffuse the situation. But these two were stubborn and both seemed dead-set on having the last word.
Lola had a soft spot for both men. They were rough around the edges, but had a charm that was hard to resist. She had dallied with both of them at different times, and they were both good in their own way.
She leaned against the bar, pretending to wipe it down as she listened to their argument. She knew that she could have a calming influence on them, but she also didn’t want to get involved in the middle of their disagreement.
Finally, the bartender stepped in and offered to buy them both a drink, and Lola breathed a sigh of relief. She decided to take advantage of the opportunity to inject herself into the situation.
“I’ll take care of those drinks, honey,” she said, winking at the bartender. “Why don’t you two join me at a table? It’s a little crowded here at the bar.”
Wade and Bart exchanged a look, then followed her to a table in the corner of the saloon. Lola poured them each a shot of whiskey and sat down between them, making sure to brush her hand against both of their arms as she did so.
“So,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “What were you two arguing about?”
Neither man answered, but their expressions softened as they looked at her. Lola could see the tension dissipating and she grinned to herself, knowing that she had done her job.
She leaned in, her hand resting on Bart’s arm. “You know, I have a feeling that you two could be good friends. If only you could get past this silly argument.”
Wade and Bart looked at each other, then back at her. Lola could see the gears turning in their heads, and she knew that she had them right where she wanted them.
“You know what?” Wade said. “I think you’re right. We were just having a little spat. It’s nothing that a drink and some good company can’t fix.”
Bart nodded in agreement, and Lola smiled. She had successfully diffused the situation, and who knows, maybe she could convince them both to stay for a little longer and keep her company.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this program. Based on my initial attempts, it looks like something that could easily generate first-draft material a writer could take advantage of. I honestly feel for the teachers who will have to figure out if their students are using it instead of doing their own writing. It also saddens me to think we’ll be seeing short stories and novels generated this way.
People should write the stories the world loves, not machines.
Amen, I have been reading about it for several days and it has apparently hit the college level pretty hard already.
One teacher says she’ll hand out pen and paper on day one and ask her students to write an essay in class. She’ll then have samples of their work to compare with assignments they turn in later. No sudden geniuses.
Agreed Josh. The AJC article scared me because it’s just the tip of very big iceberg. Thinking about where AI might take us is a sci-fi writer’s dream – if that writer happens to be human, that is. (Or does AI dream too?) Just finished Stephen Hawking’s BRIEF ANSWERS TO THE BIG QUESTIONS and he touches on AI. He says, “…the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.” Why don’t you ask chatGPT to posit the worst scenario AI could lead the world into.
Great idea, Barry! But then, what if I don’t like the answer?
There is a wonderful novel about AI: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I suspect it wasn’t written with AI, was it?
Very interesting experiment but also sad. Did I just hear Hal’s voice?
It’s entirely possible! Thanks for dropping by.
Yes scary. I wonder how it would change my life if I used it to write my memoir. Since we want to change history anyway.
I suspect there’s only one way to find out. Go for it!
All I can say is O. M. G.
Yep. Pretty much my reaction, too.
Yikes! Reminds me way too much of 2001: A Space Odyssey!
You and Hal need to close the pod bay doors.
Thank you for the investigation! I’ve been hearing about it and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Crazy to think my college essays could have been written like that!
Hey, I read your college essays, and they were way better than the packaged crap some machine would generate!