Now that everyone is talking about Large Language Models (LLMs) in general and ChatGPT in particular I thought I would share a couple thoughts I've been having about this technology that I haven't seen anywhere else. But first, let's talk about chess.
Chess is a discipline notorious for coming out on top when the robots came to take its lunch. Once it became clear that even the humblest of PCs can play better than a World Chess Champion, the chess community started using these chess engines to improve their games and learn new tactics. Having adopted these engines as a fact of life, chess is as popular as ever (if not more). Sure, a computer can do a "better" job on a fraction of the time, but who cares? It's not like there's an unmet economic need for industrial-strength chess players.
In contrast, one field that isn't doing as well is digital art. With the advent of diffusion models like Midjourney and Stable Diffusion many artists are worried that their livelihoods are now at stake and are letting the world know, ranging from comics (I like this one more but this one hits closer to home) all the way to class action lawsuits. My quick take is that these models are here to stay and that they won't necessarily destroy art but they will probably cripple the art business the same way cheap restaurants download food pictures from the internet instead of paying a professional photographer.
LLMs are unusual in that sense because they aren't disrupting a field as much as a means of communication. "Chess player" is something one does, and so is "artist"1. But "individual who uses language" is on a different class altogether, and while some of the effects of these technologies are easy to guess, others not so much.
What are we likely to see in the near future? The easiest prediction is a rise in plagiarism. Students are already using ChatGPT to generate essays regardless of whether the output makes sense or not. And spam will follow closely behind: we are already awash in repost spam and ramblings disguised as recipes, but once people start submitting auto-generated sci-fi stories to magazines we will see garbage in any medium that offers even the slightest of rewards, financial or not. Do you want a high-karma account on Reddit to establish yourself as not-a-spammer and use it to push products? Just put your payment information here and the robots will comment for you. No human interaction needed2.
What I find more interesting and likely more disruptive is the replacement of search engines with LLMs. If I ask ChatGPT right now about my PhD advisor I get an answer - this particular answer happens to be all wrong3, but let's pretend that it's not 4. This information came from some website, but the system is not telling me which one. And here there's both an opportunity and a risk. The opportunity is the chance of cutting through the spam: if I ask for a recipe for poached eggs and I get a recipe for poached eggs then I no longer have to waddle through long-winded essays on how poached eggs remind someone of evening at their grandma's house. On the other hand, this also means that all the information we collectively placed on the internet would be used for the profit of some company without even the meagre attributions we currently get.
On the long tail, and entering into guessing territory, it would be tragic if people started writing like ChatGPT. These systems have a particular writing style composed of multiple short sentences and it's not hard to imagine that young, impressionable people may start copying this output once it is widespread enough. This has happened before with SMS, so I don't see why it couldn't happen again.
Pointless letters and moving forward
One positive way to move forward would be to accept that a lot of our daily communication is so devoid of content that even a computer with no understanding of the real world can do it and work on that.
When I left my last job I auto-generated a goodbye e-mail with GPT-3, and the result was so incredibly generic that no one would have been able to learn anything from it. On the other hand, I doubt anyone would have noticed: once you've read a hundred references to "the good memories" you no longer stop to wonder whether there were any good memories to begin with. I didn't send that auto-generated e-mail. In fact, I didn't send anything: I had already said goodbye in person to the people that knew me and there was no reason to say anything else. The amount of information that was conveyed was exactly the same, but my solution wasted less of other people's time.
Maybe this is our opportunity to freshen up our writing and start writing interestingly, both in form (long sentences for the win!) and in content. The most straightforward solution would be cursing: these models have to be attractive to would-be investors they are strictly programmed not to use curse words and NSFW content (I just tried). So there's a style that no AI will be copying in the near future.
- Note that this is a simplification for the sake of the argument. As someone who often said "being a programmer is both what I do and what I am" I am aware that "artist" (like so many other professions) isn't just a job but also a way of looking at the world.
- I have noticed that people on Reddit will upvote anything without reading it first, so this is not a high bar to clear.
- The answer mashed together several researchers into one. One could argue that I got more researchers per researcher, which is definitely a take.
- The answer doesn't have to be correct - all it takes is for the person using the system to believe that the answer is correct, something we are already seeing despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.