When I was a much younger person, there were a couple of popular movies offering warnings about the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence.
The first is 1983′s “WarGames,” in which a young computer hacker played by Matthew Broderick accidentally triggers a countdown to the launch of the full arsenal of the United States nuclear stockpile at the Soviet Union because the Pentagon had handed control of the intercontinental ballistic missile system to a computer program, following the failure of humans to execute launch orders during a training exercise.
The second one is 1984′s “The Terminator,” where killer robot Arnold Schwarzenegger is dispatched back in time by the sentient artificial intelligence (called Skynet) in order to assassinate the hero of the resistance that is fighting the artificial intelligence in the future. I think I have that right. I honestly never understood the whole time travel aspect of the “Terminator” franchise. I watched for the butt-kicking and explosions, like everyone else.
The shared moral of these two cautionary tales is that humans should be careful about putting too much control in the hands of algorithms. In “WarGames,” the world is saved when they managed to teach the computer a lesson that some games — like tic-tac-toe and global thermonuclear war — can’t be won, so it is better to just not play.
I think the “Terminator” franchise is too lucrative for Skynet to be taught a final lesson once and for all, but the warning is the same: when artificial intelligence realizes how terrible people are, don’t be surprised if it decides that it’s not necessary to keep us around.
I was thinking about these two films in the context of the recent, extended public discussion and hand-wringing over ChatGPT, the large language model artificial intelligence algorithm made available to the public by the OpenAI project.
ChatGPT can produce perfectly fluent prose to any question or prompt within seconds, and the first time you see it at work, it does appear to be a marvel. Its proficiency and fluency have some folks freaking out about how ChatGPT has obviated most of what students are asked to write for school, given that it can churn out an infinite number of B-level responses without triggering any kind of plagiarism detector.
For me, this primarily calls into question the kind of writing that students do in school. Why are we training them to write like an algorithm?
But some people are going even further suggesting that this is the end for writers of all kinds, novelists, poets, journalists, you name it. If an algorithm can deliver error-free prose on any topic within seconds, why would we accept the inevitable flaws that attach to human-produced writing?
Let me suggest that we consider the lessons from those movies from 40 years ago, where the limits of computerized “perfection” are illustrated, and perhaps consider that those human “flaws” are what actually make something worth reading.
For sure, we should be thinking about how to live and work in a world where this technology exists, but we also must remember that as the humans in charge, we have choice and agency over technology. “WarGames” and “The Terminator” are about what happens when we abdicate our collective responsibility to honor what makes us human, flaws and all.
ChatGPT cannot think or reason or make intuitive leaps. It is a syntax-arranging machine and writing is about more than arranging syntax. Even if creative writers start to use ChatGPT as a tool, it will be the human intervention that determines if the product is at all worth our time.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles
2. “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin
3. “This Is Happiness” by Niall Williams
4. “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
5. “Young Mungo” by Douglas Stuart
— Alissa P., Chicago
Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” has the right mix of character-driven narrative and surprise in the story that Alissa seems drawn to.
1. “On the Move” by Oliver Sacks
2. “Trust” by Hernan Diaz
3. “The Netanyahus” by Joshua Cohen
4. “Less Is Lost” by Andrew Sean Greer
5. “Chang and Eng” by Darin Strauss
— Michael T., Wilmette
“Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson mixes the real with the fantastic while adding a dash of humor, traits that are collectively represented in Michael’s list of recent reads.
1. “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell
2. “Our Missing Hearts” by Celeste Ng
3. “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver
4. “Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel
5. “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan
— Georgia M., Naperville
This is a novel I recommend often because I think it’s a great combination of the emotional and the intellectual, as we experience a man trying to pick up his life after a major loss, and the world he once believed in is challenged by new ideas and new people: “The Explanation for Everything” by Lauren Grodstein.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to [email protected].