[Column] Rise of the Planet of the AI

Columnist Vishal Onkhar tried ChatGPT. To him it is reminiscent of a newly built home that does not (yet) feel lived-in. But for how long?

“I grew from a bright and hopeful MSc student to a tired and somewhat jaded PhD candidate in the final stretch of his endeavour.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

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A new challenger emerges from the shadows to vie for dominion over the white-collar profession. Murmurs ripple through the amassed onlookers, waxing and waning like the moon overhead yet never quite turning into an uproar. They soon give way to an uneasy silence that settles on the paved courtyard before the impending duel. And beneath the ivory tower of academia, the enthralled crowd watches with bated breath as the contenders lunge at each other in a battle of wits that will decide the fate of all livelihoods…

Cut! There’s a new AI in town that’s got everyone’s knickers in a twist. And if doomsayers are to be believed, ChatGPT might just be the last thing you ever see before it puts you out of action… er, I mean business. The eloquent prose and nifty code snippets it spits out are often difficult to discern from the work of real scientists, journalists, and programmers. Remember the halcyon days of your childhood when your parents impressed upon you the importance of higher education lest you be replaced by a robot? Yeah, about that… Makes you wonder if this column was composed by AI, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t. You are spared that juvenile prank because for all its literary prowess, ChatGPT was averse to authoring anything that might suggest it possessed violent tendencies, even as a morbid joke. ‘TARS, what’s your humour setting?’ Remind me not to pick this AI assistant on my imminent voyage to a distant black hole.

‘We are on the cusp of a historic event’

But the naked truth is – after hours of haggling, tons of tweaks, and repeated response regenerations, I resigned myself to the conclusion that ChatGPT was unable to pen a sufficiently whimsical, insightful, and compelling column in one sitting. I even attempted a sentence-by-sentence approach, but the micromanagement that it demanded proved more effort and brought less satisfaction than writing the piece by hand.

In my opinion, ChatGPT is reminiscent of a newly built home that does not (yet) feel lived-in. Despite the flowery language and impeccable grammar, the AI’s words often ring hollow, lacking (albeit not entirely) character, depth, imagination, and a certain dynamic, meandering quality – collectively, the human touch. It also stumbles when associating ideas from seemingly unrelated topics. Couple that with its brashness in peddling unverified claims and bogus ‘facts’, and it begins to resemble a collection of half-truths and hyperbole, such as Tom Riddle’s diary from Harry Potter.

And while I’m no pundit of natural language processing models, I have little doubt they will eventually outperform people. We are on the cusp of a historic event comparable to the advent of the internet or the launch of the personal computer. And when ChatGPT (or a competitor) is fully upgraded, trained on the copious data we faithfully offer to it, and obtains unfettered access to the web, the end result might well be the closest thing we have to a deity. With that, we enter the realm of science fiction – Ghost in the Shell’s Puppet Master, Westworld’s Rehoboam, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s infamous HAL – your guess is as good as mine.

But until the day we are supplanted by (sentient?) software that renders writing and coding (among other skills) obsolete, I see ChatGPT treading many paths – as an alternative to Google and information websites, as a brainstorming tool and antidote to creator’s block, as a harbinger of human relegation to supervisory roles in office work, as a dangerous weapon in the hands of the unscrupulous, and as a fission bomb in an era of misinformation and fake news, potentially leading to a parallel universe of fake facts supported by fabricated references that are utterly indistinguishable from the truth. Oh well, for the time being, I’m just happy to keep my job. Will check back in a year or two.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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