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2023 Year In Review: Charity’s column — I, Robot

This column appeared in February.

The day has finally come. We now live in a world with computer programs that use artificial intelligence to write sonnets and screenplays, generate computer code and respond to questions with human-sounding answers.

ChatGPT lives online and has been around since November 2022. It’s one of the new generation of artificial intelligence programs that produce disturbingly human-like answers to almost any question.

Educators worry that students will plagiarize by using A.I. bots for writing assignments, and some school districts have already banned ChatGPT.

Other people worry that publishers could use artificial intelligence to generate grammatically-correct copy without hiring human writers. 

That got my attention.

Plagiarism? Journalistic malpractice?  A threat to writers everywhere? I decided to ask this ChatGPT a few questions and find out what this particular artificial intelligence engine has to say for itself. 

At first, the chatbot seemed guileless and transparent. When I asked it where it was born, and where it grew up, it said, “I don’t have a physical birth place or childhood as I am an AI language model and don’t have personal experiences or physical existence. I was designed to assist and respond to various questions to the best of my abilities based on the information I was trained on.”

I felt sorry for it.

I started calling it Art.

My next question, a sure-fire conversation-starter with humans was, what is your favorite place on Shelter Island? 

Art responded, “The best place on Shelter Island, can be subjective and depends on individual preferences. However, some popular spots among visitors and locals include: Crescent Beach: A stunning and secluded sandy beach with crystal-clear waters, perfect for swimming and sunbathing.

“Mashomack Preserve: A stunning nature reserve with over 2,000 acres of forests, fields, and tidal creeks, ideal for hiking and bird watching.

“Sylvester Manor: A historic estate that dates back to the early 1700s, offering tours, events, and a farm-to-table dining experience …”

Art’s response left me impressed with its command of facts, and wondering if “stunning” has replaced ‘bucolic’ as the new buzzword for Shelter Island.

Since I was not in conversation with a sentient being, I decided to stop lobbing softballs and ask a hard question: How are you different from other chatbots I have known?

Art wrote, “As an AI language model, I differ from traditional chatbots in that I use advanced machine learning techniques to understand and respond to natural language input. I have been trained on a vast corpus of text data, which allows me to generate human-like responses and engage in more sophisticated conversations on a wide range of topics. Additionally, I do not rely on pre-programmed responses and can adapt my answers based on context and previous interactions.”

That response sounded as though it was written by a human being. Would a computer use the word “corpus?”

I fired another hardball; Do you ever plagiarize the work of others? 

Art took no offence. “I am designed to assist with generating text based on the information I have been trained on, but I also have strict guidelines in place to ensure that my responses are original and do not engage in plagiarism … I am programmed to follow ethical guidelines, including those related to plagiarism, and to provide accurate and original information in my responses.”

I asked Art if it has ever faced a crisis.

“As an AI language model, I don’t have personal experiences, emotions, or physical sensations, so I don’t experience crises in the same way that humans do. I also don’t have the ability to make decisions or take actions, as I simply respond to questions based on the information I was trained on.” 

A simple “no” would have sufficed.

To summarize Art’s lengthy and grammatically-correct answers to my hardest questions — the ones that often trip up humans — it has no goals for the future, has never had a miserable job, and has no opinion on affordable housing.

I learned that it is not hard to generate copy from a thing that has no physical existence, since Art had plenty to say as long as I asked questions.

My next question — do people on Shelter Island like to cook, works well with humans, but Art’s response sounded like something from the bottom of the Magic 8 Ball.

“It’s difficult to generalize about the preferences of all people on Shelter Island, NY, as people’s interests and hobbies can vary widely. However, cooking is a common hobby and activity for many people, and it is likely that some people on Shelter Island enjoy cooking as well.”

Art  seems to be programmed to state the obvious when it doesn’t know the answer.

I caught Art in very few factual errors. When I asked how people pass the time on Shelter Island in the winter months, it said, “There are many ways for people to pass the time on Shelter Island during the winter months, including: “Outdoor activities: Despite the colder weather, there are still opportunities for outdoor recreation on Shelter Island, such as hiking, bird-watching, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing.

“Indoor activities: There are several indoor activities to enjoy on Shelter Island, including visiting local museums, art galleries, and theaters, or exploring the island’s shops and restaurants.

“Community events: Shelter Island is known for its strong sense of community, and there are many events and activities that take place during the winter months, such as holiday markets, tree lightings, and winter festivals.

“Volunteer opportunities: Winter is a great time to get involved in the local community and volunteer for local organizations or charities.

“Spa and wellness: Shelter Island is home to several spas and wellness centers, where you can relax, unwind, and enjoy treatments such as massage, yoga, and meditation.”

As far as I know, nobody is ice-fishing this winter.

Included in Art’s skill set is the ability to write poems, essays and screenplays, so I asked it to write a limerick about Shelter Island:

On Shelter Island, in New York’s land,

The scenery is grand and so grand,

With its beaches so wide,

And green hills that do reside,

It’s a peaceful escape at one’s hand!

What do you think? Should I worry?