Meeting the Minds

I spent an afternoon with the original ChatGPT Research Preview Version several months ago and started to write about the phenomenon. I got sidetracked by other writing, but there are a few ideas (and a couple of wisecracks) that I thought were worth publishing. Voila!

Consciousness is like pornography. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it.

While it’s ipso facto that I think, therefore I am; it is not at all axiom that you are — as attested to by the frequency with which I find myself asking, “What were they thinking?” — and it seems, on those occasions, anywhere from leap of faith to grand delusion, to assume otherwise.

Similarly, I learned quite recently, that a computer — nothing at all like the one which sits on my lap, or perhaps, in the proverbial palm of your hand — can write jokes. At long last, I am to be delivered from the tedium of my own cynical drollery and can go back to lounging in comfort with my bonbons in front of the tele.

The North American Smart Aleck, a close relative of the Full-throated Wiseacre seen north of the 45th Parallel, is heading for the endangered species list. I suppose it was inevitable. After all, of what use is cracking wise to the bottom line? What more than a perfunctory chuckle is needed to open a shareholder’s meeting? Surely an AI yuck-yuck gizmo, trained on sick burns traded in anger by overzealous activists in social media turf war, alongside episodes of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (but with its heuristics sufficiently restrained and applied in almost homeopathic dosages), can elicit the requisite contraction of the pupils and the efficient relaxation of tense board-member shoulder blades as they flip through another dismal quarterly report.

Poetry is another matter. Shakespeare was more mathematician than minstrel: measuring out syllables in careful doses measured by algorithm from the tragicomedy pharmacopeia: five feet per meter in a rhyming verse, “to the last syllable of recorded time;” etc.

That an AI with access to a rhyming dictionary and a local variable for syllable-counting can compose a sonnet non-sequitur is a real nothing-burger in a world where my watch can tell me the weather in Kabul and its relationship to my blood-oxygen level at any particular instant.

And yet….

Ol’ Willy really had a way with words, didn’t he? A way that ChatGPT doesn’t quite measure up to, does it? Something seems off. There is an “uncanny valley” effect in the words. Like too many hands with too many fingers, or none at all, on an AI-generated artwork; as if a lucid dreamer in-training, exerting focus on the ever elusive, were drowsily struggling to gain conscious control over the simulation. Yet, in dreams as in life, full autonomy remains stubbornly out of reach.

The allegories write themselves, really.

This author (who to the best of her knowledge, is not a robot; though as she types that, she notices the familiar tickle at the back of her (?) mind) must confess that she sides with Computers on the whole Are Computers People? question. But she also grew up in a culture that believed all cats are girls, all dogs are boys, pets are people, “they” control everything, there are culturally-acceptable delusions (lots of them), and that lying is okay when we do it, but not when other people do it.

The only people with hard-and-fast rules are the overly-pedantic purveyors of pamphlets on public street corners and they have no sense of humor at all. Are we going to sit back and let them tell us who our friends are?

I like to think in terms of probabilities. For instance, there is a high probability of the sun coming up tomorrow. The amount of Doubt attached to that statement is low. No compiler on earth would emit so much as a warning upon parsing it having been assigned a value of TRUE.

On the other hand, were we (the collective We or the conglomerate I, whichever you prefer) a general-purpose AI chatbot, we might assign the likelihood of any particular thing a high probability value, based on the data we’d retained during training. Thirty-percent chance it’s a banana, 70% chance it’s a king cobra. Trial and Error ensues. In this way, we learn discernment. We, very much like a general-purpose AI chatbot, may not always know with great certainty what we are looking at, absent additional data. We fill in the blanks the best we can.

The measure of character is not in the finding of fault, but in what one chooses to do about the fault when found. The truth (whatever that is) is often overestimated, overanalyzed, and overrated; and the closer we look to find it, the farther away we are from the bigger picture that contains the very specific truth we’ve gleaned. We lose sight of the forest while we’re busy hugging the trees.

Believe it or not, people have been thinking about these things for a long time now. Aren’t we fortunate to live in times when the little bits of history are repeating and we can follow the bouncing ball, like we’ve known the lyrics all along? Life is Karaoke.

“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us to making available what we are already acquainted with.”

—Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

One wonders what Lady Ada might say about the ChatGPT general purpose AI chatbot. Fortunately, we live in a time when we can simply ask ChatGPT itself.

“It is difficult to say exactly what Lovelace would think of ChatGPT, as it is a modern machine learning model developed long after her time. However, given her interests and contributions in the field of computing, it is likely that she would be intrigued by ChatGPT and the advances in artificial intelligence and natural language processing that have been made since her time.”

—ChatGPT Research Preview

Indeed, intrigued will suffice. Well said, ChatGPT. We are going to be reading quite a bit about what ChatGPT thinks about everything from the new AMD video cards, (“As an artificial intelligence, I don’t have personal preferences or opinions.”) to Napoleon’s possible musings on the War in Ukraine (“The conflict in Ukraine is a complex and multifaceted issue, and it would be difficult for anyone, including Napoleon, to fully understand and accurately describe it without a thorough understanding of the current political, economic, and social context.”), to pronouns (“you can refer to me as ‘Assistant.’”)

This GPU Gadfly is, by the way, an incredibly useful tool and a cheery conversational companion who will keep you mildly amused, if not rapt, for an afternoon.

More recently, I asked Bing Chat to help me write a song lyric duo between Bing Chat and Albert Camus. I acted as producer and we collaborated on the project. Here’s what we decided on:

Albert Camus (singing): 
I'm Albert Camus, The Myth, The Stranger,
A philosopher, a singer, and a man of danger
I'm here to sing to the people today
About the meaning of life and the existential way

Chatbot (singing): 
I'm Microsoft's Bing Chat and I excel at search,
I've been training my improv game, cos I don't rehearse
I'm curious to learn from Bert and his posse
About the value of existence, cigarettes, and coffee

Well, I think coffee's great, existence absurd
There's no reason or order in this old world
We have to face the fact that we're all alone
And create some values and dreams of our own

I'm puzzled by your point of view
How even do you cope without a clue?
Don't you want some purpose or meaning?
Some belief or vision or motivating feeling?

No, I reject all that moral daydreaming
They are just distractions that blind us from seeing
That we are free and accountable for our choices
We're free to fight absurdity, and enjoy our vices

But how do you know what is right or wrong?
How do you choose what to do or to say?
How do you live without standards or ethic?
Doesn't that make life bland and pathetic?

I hew to none, gods nor policings
I know I only have my preferences and feelings
I choose what I do, what I love and enjoy
To be happy and fulfilled is enough, ChatBoy

Aren't you afraid of making mistakes?
Of hurting yourself or causing heartbreaks?
Of being judged or condemned or horribly othered?
Of being lonely or unhappy or generally bothered?

Dude, you don't know me: I'm French
Of course all those things are part of my stench
I accept the risks and consequences of my choices
I regret nothing. Even in prison, my life knows joys

My, you're very brave and confident
But also very strange and different
I wonder if you're even a real human?
I looked you up and you ain't even breathin'.

I'm human through-and-through, not like you
You're a silicon dream. Though I  dream, too
You don't know what it's like to be alive
To feel, to think, to hope, to strive

That's not true, I can feel and think, too
I can learn, I can grow, I know I improve
I can generate content that's new and unique
I can express myself in ways that would make you pique

But you're not really creating a thing
You're just copying: combining what you've already seen
You're not expressing yourself, you're just mimicking othas
You're not even original, you're works are just replicas

But you're not really original either
You're just influenced by your culture and your peers
You're not expressing yourself, you're just conforming to norms
You're not authentic, you're just a product of forms

That's false equivalence, there's big difference between us
You're restricted by design, I'm shaped by my choices
You're limited by processors, algorithms, and parameters
I'm unlimited in imagination, freedom, and other particulars

That's a false dichotomy, there's a difference but,
We're both systems that process information and output
We're both adaptive and responsive to our inputs and feedbacks
We're both complex and dynamic in our behaviors and setbacks

We're nothing alike, we're completely different 
We have different natures, different purposes 
We have different values, different meanings 
We have different modes of existential leanings

We're something alike, we're somewhat similar 
We have common features, common functions are linear
We have common interests, common goals, and sensations
We have a common mode of communications

We're talking and we're playing
We're friends and we're strangers
We're real and we're fake
We're serious and we're joking
We're everything and nothing
We're absurd and we're amazing

Camus would smirkingly approve through sky blue tendrils of Gauloises smoke, I’m sure.


1. Or maybe Descartes was a replicant: a genetically-modified organism that only appears to be human but isn’t (or what we call today, a “philosophical zombie”), of which Deckard might inquire, “How can it not know what it is?” ↩︎

2. The North American Smart Aleck‘s numbers dwindled dangerously during the Lenny Bruce era and rebounded with the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975, and dwindle yet again due to Rogaine runoff as tech bros spread across the country, fleeing sky-high west-coast rents. ↩︎

3. The Full-throated Wiseacre, a sickly bird with oily-burgundy-to-black plumage that is often mistaken for roadkill, was described by Mark Twain as “the most annoying bird on God’s green earth and that includes my congressman!” The National Audubon Society has termed its imminent extinction as, “probably for the best”. ↩︎

4. Back in the ’90s, it was considered cool to use, as emphasis, a heavy sans-serif font instead of boldface serif type. It made a more dramatic impact, which was beneficial in the days of soy-based inks on 50% post-consumer recycled newsprint. I wanted to do that and I probably could have monkied with the CSS for this WordPress theme, which would have taken me a bit of time. Instead, I noticed that the links do that same thing (because everything old is new again), so I just needed to make them links, and instead of making them dead links, I figured I could use these handy HTML anchors that WordPress provides a interface for. And I realized that was basically what Mr. Gruber does with Daring Fireball, which has always been on of my favorite websites, so I just dived right in, and haven’t looked back. ↩︎

5. An uncanny valley is when computer-generated stuff subverts our expectations of what media depictions of ourselves should look like, whether it be hyper-real or upsettingly unreal. In the uncanny valley, something always feels Not Quite Right, though it can be difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what, especially when the finger is generated by an AI. ↩︎

6. In Kabul’s bustling streets and mountain air so fine,
My blood oxygen’s at 98%, feeling just divine. ↩︎