“Hi there! I’m writing to let you know about an incredible new AI tool that can help with various tasks related to website copywriting and SEO. It’s been used by some of the biggest companies in the world, such as Airbnb and Microsoft.”
Those are the opening lines of a spam email I now get several times a day. “Artificial intelligence” (AI) seems to have replaced unclaimed fortunes and penis enlargement as the most enticing online come-on. And it’s not just website copywriting that algorithms are now supposed to do just as well as people can — it’s journalism, too.
OpenAI, a San Francisco company, has released ChatGPT, a text-generating system that “feels very much like magic,” the Washington Post reported. “The tool has captivated the internet, attracting more than a million users with writing that can seem surprisingly creative.”
In Harvard’s NiemanLab “Predictions for Journalism 2023,” Cory Bergman gushes, “I was stunned at its well-written responses across a wide range of topics…. Pick a topic like cooking, and use ChatGPT to populate a recipe site from scratch. Or pick a city, and have the AI argue in favor or against a political position in context of the local community.”
I had to try ChatGPT for myself, of course. I asked it to write “a nostalgic personal essay about Christmas on Cape Cod.” It quickly spat out a 300-word collection of dopey clichés.
“Christmas on Cape Cod is a special time of year that brings back a flood of memories and emotions for me,” wrote the bot. “One of the things I loved most about Christmas on the Cape was the way the small towns transformed into winter wonderlands. The houses and stores were adorned with twinkling lights and colorful decorations, and the smell of pine and gingerbread filled the air.”
The dream of machines that think and will talk to you is nothing new, of course. M.I.T.’s Joseph Weizenbaum was intrigued by the idea back in the 1960s when he created ELIZA, a program that mimicked the interrogatory technique of psychologist Carl Rogers and conducted long conversations that startlingly resembled therapy sessions. ELIZA detected key words and phrases in what it was told and turned them into questions: “Why do you think your mother loved you less than your brother?” People were entranced and readily revealed intimate details of their personal lives to the program.
Weizenbaum was shocked at how seriously his own shallow invention was taken. “What I had not realized,” he wrote, “is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.” A pioneer in the field of AI, he became increasingly alarmed by the eroding boundary between humans and machines and turned against his own field, arguing that AI was a dangerous illusion that could be twisted by governments and corporations for evil ends.
But who am I to stand in the way of progress? “I will always cherish the memories of Christmas on Cape Cod,” as my new editorial-writing assistant says.