ChatGPT Not Quite Ready for Column Writing

I just had to try it. It sounded too good to be true.

Here was an opportunity to try a program that can research and write about almost anything you tell it to. I love trying new stuff, especially when it’s cutting edge and can actually do some useful work. Also, it’s free right now.

The program, ChatGPT, is just one of many evolving chatbots. These are internet robots, often used by companies on their websites as a point of contact for customers. The intent is to answer questions so real people (employees) don’t need to. If you’ve ever used the little chat box on a site to ask a question, it is likely being answered by a chatbot even if it says “Got a question? Just ask Sally.” There might even be a photo of “Sally” but she is really just a program.

ChatGPT is hyped up today because it’s an improved chatbot that can even write research papers. There are two important components to a chatbot – artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP). As I understand it, the AI part tries to figure out what you are asking and then does the research. This is followed by the NLP part which tries to answer like a knowledgeable human would. It can predict how to string words together in ways that are meaningful to humans. I think that might be the GPT part of ChatGPT which stands for generative pre-trained transformer.

Do you need an 800-word review by tomorrow of the book “Great Expectations” with specific focus on unique word usage? Easy. Ready in a minute. Want an easy recipe for a great smoothie? Almost too easy.

The result of the book review was so impressive that I quickly realized it was too well written for someone like me whose distaste at having to read and review old books was recognized by instructors the moment I entered the classroom. Fortunately, ChatGPT can dumb it down (or up) by specifying a grade level. If you don’t like the results, there’s a “Regenerate response” option which yields a different result using the same request. Even a manual one-word change to the request can yield a completely different result.

I just had to see if ChatGPT could write my column for me. So I submitted this request: “Write a funny 500-word column for the Red Wing Republican Eagle newspaper.”

The title (headline) it created was “Why I’m Running for Mayor of Red Wing (Hint: It’s Not Because I’m Qualified).” Really. The column content was lame and not funny, in my opinion.

I then asked the same question but replaced “funny” with “humorous” and got this headline: “The Great Outdoors: An Ode to Red Wing’s Most Overrated Attraction.” The gist of this resulting story is that Red Wing is too buggy. Well, we have gnats and mosquitoes that can be bad but not every day and not all year. It wasn’t very humorous.

I expect that throngs of students everywhere are asking ChatGPT to write papers for them. I feel sorry for the instructors who need to read and grade them. Can they identify the fakes? Well, there’s an app for that already – created by the very makers of ChatGPT.

Instructors should at least make students answer a specific question so if a bunch of them enter the same question, the results will be the same or nearly so. They wouldn’t have any trouble with mine. They’d know.

AI is already altering our lives. Many of us place Amazon orders by “talking” to Alexa. Mayo Clinic and other medical institutions are researching how to use their vast stores of medical information to eventually assist doctors in making better diagnoses. I might not want a program to replace my doctor but I’m happy to get a second opinion from AI in my diagnosis and remedy.

I asked ChatGPT, “What was life like in Red Wing, MN in 1955?” It appears that the program doesn’t have access to a lot of demographics data so it included a couple known facts about Red Wing but basically concluded it was just like any other town in the Midwest at that time. It said:

“I am not able to find specific information about what life was like in Red Wing, MN in 1955. However, I can tell you that in the 1950s, Red Wing had a population of around 14,000 and was a small, Midwestern town primarily known for its ceramic and pottery manufacturing industry. Additionally, like many small towns in the 1950s, the community likely had a strong sense of cohesion and traditional values.”

ChatGPT isn’t up on current events. It knew nothing about the Chinese balloon that traversed the country. It also is trained not to offer opinions on political topics such as how well Joe Biden is doing as president. It’s reply said it doesn’t have personal opinions or emotions and is neutral and impartial, providing factual data only.

I guess I’ll need to keep creating my own content. Huh, maybe the newspaper will just replace me with ChatGPT. That’s what all of this is about, isn’t it? To replace people?

Well, there’s still work to be done on these chatbots before they can replace everyone. And I’m retired so what do I care?