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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Chatbots can answer anything that doesn’t need a mind

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Over the last 10 days, the tech world and most people who follow tech developments have been utterly fascinated by a new app called ChatGPT released by the non-profit artificial intelligence (AI) research lab OpenAI, co-founded by Elon Musk (yes, him). ChatGPT—GPT stands for ‘generative pre-trained transformer’—is a chatbot that interacts with the user in a conversational way. Chatbots are nothing new—they are a fixture on corporate websites, especially for dealing with complaints or service requests, but this app takes it to a stunning new level. Within five days of launch, it had garnered a million users.

You can ask ChatGPT any question that comes to your mind, and it gives a perfectly human-like response. The quality of responses is often better than anything Google currently offers, prompting a few enthusiasts to even claim that it will kill Google. This is unlikely, but the app is certainly quite wondrous. It can also be used to build other apps and websites, correct grammar, fix bugs in software programs, summarize text and much more.

I asked the app to write a short review of The Godfather. It replied: “The Godfather is an iconic classic film that still stands the test of time. Its gripping story of a crime family in the 1940s, led by the legendary Marlon Brando, is a timeless tale of loyalty, honour, and betrayal. The performances of the entire cast, stunning cinematography, and classic score make The Godfather a must-see film. It is an absolute classic and a must-watch for any film fan.”

My friend Prithwis Mukerjee asked ChatGPT to explain quantum entanglement to a little child. “Quantum entanglement is a special way that tiny particles can be connected,” was the response. “It’s like having a magic invisible string that ties them together, no matter how far apart they are. This helps us understand how the universe works in a very small way. It’s kind of like when you and your best friend are really close, even when you’re not together, you can still feel each other’s feelings and know what each other is thinking. It’s a cool and mysterious part of the world around us!” The last two sentences are quite extraordinary; Google cannot do this.

Encouraged by this, I told the app: “Write a sarcastic comment about Manchester United’s recent performance.” It came back with: “It’s been an absolute pleasure watching Manchester United play this season… said no one ever!”

I asked the app to write a limerick on why India should stop playing cricket. It replied: “The cricket in India is a bore/ It’s time to switch to something more/ It’s time to move on/ The fans will be gone/ Let’s do something new and explore!”

ChatGPT is based on what are known as large language models. It trawls through trillions of words on the internet, and is trained to create text based on what it has seen. Endless iterations lead to it become a self-learning software which uses the rules that its programmers have set for it. As time goes by, it becomes more and more sophisticated since it uses all the queries posed to it and user feedback to train itself.

James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is perhaps the most difficult English novel ever written, using its own invented syntax. I asked the app to write on a cricket match in Finnegans Wake style. “Twas a cricket match of such grandeur, twixt two teams of rival lads, that none could have guessed of the outcome, as the batsmen and bowlers vied,” replied the chatbot. “The crowd were a-roarin’ and a-cheerin’, as the bails flew and the wickets crashed, and each run scored was met with a mighty shout, like a thunderclap ‘cross the pitch. The bowlers were fast and the batsmen were skilled, and each one gave it their all, but the batsman’s luck was fleeting, and soon his wicket came to fall. The bowler rose triumphant, and the crowd roared his name, as the batsman trudged off the pitch, his head hung low in shame. But soon it was the turn of the bowlers, and their luck seemed to have been spent, as the batsmen began to take control, and their runs began to dent. The bowlers tried and tried and tried, but their efforts were in vain, as the batsmen kept on scoring, and the runs kept on coming in. In the end, the match was won by the team with the most runs.”

A news report in the British newspaper The Guardian has gone so far as to say that ChatGPT could put professors, programmers and journalists out of their jobs in a few years’ time. It quotes academics saying that they have generated responses to exam questions that would earn a student full marks. But this may well turn out to be hyperbole, largely because ChatGPT cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction. It is essentially a word organizer that scours the net and is programmed to produce coherent sentences. In fact, it states upfront: “While we have safeguards in place, the system may occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information and produce offensive or biased content. It is not intended to give advice.”

As millions of people log in, ask questions and give their feedback, it will keep getting better, but can it ever produce an original work of physics or philosophy? Or form a genuine opinion?

Of course, that need not stop us from marvelling at this new app. Before logging out, I asked: “Does God exist?” It took half a second to answer. “This is a complex question,” it told me, “and the answer depends on your individual beliefs.”

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines 

 

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