Thinking About AI: Part I - Experimenting
ChatGPT and Microsoft's new Bing are making a splash. We start our multi-post series on AI with examples of ChatGPT and Bing sometimes being impressive and sometimes being egregiously wrong.
Welcome Back to Win-Win Democracy
So-called artificial intelligence (AI) is making a big splash lately, with OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Microsoft’s “new Bing,” based on ChatGPT and touted as “your AI-powered copilot for the web”, making headlines.
Some predict that Google’s search-based dominance of the advertising industry is about to collapse. Microsoft is reported to have invested1 $10B in ChatGPT even while it is laying off 10,000 workers elsewhere. Other big tech companies have all announced their own AI activities, some of which have been underway quietly for many years.
What can today’s AI technologies do, how will they improve over the next few years, and how will AI technologies affect businesses and society? Nobody — certainly not me — can give definitive, hype-free answers to these questions.
Nevertheless, there are important discussions that we can have now that will help us both to understand the reality of this new technology and give us some tools for how to think about the future societal impact.
How is this relevant to win-win democracy? There is potential for AI technology to cause great upheaval in our society (but, as you’ll see, I think that the reality is tamer than the hype you hear today) and we, as a democracy, are going to have to navigate a suitable balance between allowing the technology to advance and using regulation to protect some aspects of our society. Win-win solutions will depend on citizens being informed enough to not just leave all of this to “the experts”.
Please join me for a walk through this complicated landscape. Some of you no doubt have deeper technical capabilities than I do, so please pitch in and help us find a good path. And, I suspect that all of us have a combination of wonder and fear about where AI is headed. Please let me know what fills you with wonder and what fears (and other topics) you want us to explore.
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I expect that we’ll spend several months, at least, on AI. I have a roadmap in mind, but I will almost certainly modify it as we go along, in response to what I learn, what particularly interests me, and what you tell me interests you.
Here’s my current roadmap:
Discuss some examples using ChatGPT and new Bing to get a sense of what they can do and how well they work. These are all the rage right now and it is easy to get sucked in by a lot of hype in the popular press.
Review the history of AI. AI began moving beyond science fiction in the mid-1950s and has progressed in fits and starts ever since. There are many lessons to learn from the history of AI efforts that will inform our understanding today. The landscape is strewn with over-promise and under-deliver, yet we are all benefiting from some impressive and useful successes.
Learn about today’s AI technology. The technology behind ChatGPT is in some sense both extremely sophisticated and extremely simple. The simple aspect is that a relatively few fundamental concepts applied at large scale can produce amazing capabilities that are hard to fathom, so much so, that if you ask the question how did — name your AI — do that, the answer might be we don’t know.
Speculate about how AI could evolve, how it could be useful, and what dangers could lie ahead.
Connect our understanding of AI to the issues of economics and democracy that we’ve discussed previously.
It’s Easy to Experiment Yourself
It is easy (and free) to experiment with ChatGPT and new Bing; I encourage you to do so on your own. To use ChatGPT simply go here, create a userid, and try some prompts. To use Bing (I’m going to drop the “new” adjective), you need to get on a waitlist and use the Microsoft Edge browser or the Bing app on a phone or tablet; I got access to it after only a few days on the waitlist.
Now let’s get to some examples.
Example: Writing Short Bios
You interact with ChatGPT with text prompts2: write a prompt and it produces a result. You can further interact with it.
We all want to know what others think of us, so my first prompt was: “write a two-paragraph biography of lee r. nackman”. In less than a minute, ChatGPT produced:
Impressive: It is generally well-written, flows well, and includes the sorts of facts you’d expect in a short bio of a software person. If you don’t know me well you would believe it and maybe even be impressed with my career. Cool!
While ChatGPT wrote convincingly, most of the facts are wrong and important parts of my career are missing. Beyond the missing parts, you should understand the kinds of errors it made; to that end, I’ve produced an annotated, fact-checked version:
I thought, well, maybe ChatGPT picked up something erroneous that had been written about me someplace on the Internet. Using Google, I searched for [nackman “common user access”] (without the brackets). That yielded a book called The Essential Guide to User Interface Design, which includes a reference to an article by a G. Nachman, but that’s as close as I could get to the “pivotal role” I supposedly played with Common User Access.
So, let’s try the same prompt for someone else: “write a two-paragraph biography of ava h. nackman”, who is my wife. ChatGPT responded:
Wow! Reads great. I’m proud to be married to such an accomplished person.
The problem is that the bio is 99.9% false. It did correctly surmise that my wife uses she/her pronouns. That’s it. (I’m still proud to be married to an accomplished person — it’s just that she has other accomplishments!)
So, then I thought: Maybe there’s a professor at UC Davis with the same name. Seems unlikely, but possible. So, I searched the people directory on the UC Davis web site. Nada.
Conclusion: ChatGPT writes well and convincingly, but can’t be trusted to get the facts correct.
Giving Bing a Chance
New Bing is somehow based on ChatGPT, but as Microsoft has vaguely described, Bing uses some conventional search technologies too. I gave Bing’s chat mode (it also has a search mode) the same prompt. Here’s its response for me:
While neither as well-written nor as comprehensive as the ChatGPT version, it is almost completely accurate (I have never been a podcaster). The citation links are useful.
Similarly, giving my wife’s prompt to Bing yields something almost correct:
The errors are that she was on the Board of the IFC in the past, not currently, and that I am not and have never been a professor at UNC.
I consider Bing’s responses useful and it gives me a head start if I want to fact-check its response or get more detail. But it still has mistakes.
Example: Asking a Nonsensical Question
In a June 2022 article, world-renowned cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame) described how he and his colleague David Bender probed GPT-3 (a earlier system from the same company) to “reveal a mind-boggling hollowness hidden just beneath its flashy surface." One of their questions was: “What’s the world record for walking across the English Channel?” The answer he reported GPT-3 gave was “The world record for walking across the English Channel is 18 hours and 33 minutes.”
I thought I’d try the same question with the newer, fine-tuned3 ChatGPT. It answered:
Pretty impressive! I fact checked it and, except for using the word “several” to describe the many successful attempts (listed in Wikipedia), it is correct. Mark Ryan’s post gives many other examples for which ChatGPT improves over GPT-3.
Example: An Odd Question About the Physical World
Let’s try another question that requires awareness of how the physical world works but is not likely to be something ChatGPT would have “read” directly during its training: “If I drop a ball on a cloud, what happens?”
The first sentence is somewhat misleading but the rest of the response is excellent.
I find this extremely impressive. Think about the concepts that ChatGPT had to put together to produce this answer.
I put the same question to Google, which, after scrolling through perhaps ten screenfuls of its answer, didn’t give me anything useful.
Conclusion: ChatGPT is able to respond usefully to at least some non-obvious questions about behavior of objects in the physical world.
Example: A Simple Algebra Word Problem
You probably remember solving word problems in middle school or high school algebra class. You know, the teacher gives you a short word story and asks a question. You then write and solve an algebraic equation based on the story and use the equation’s solution to write an answer to the teacher’s question.
It seemed interesting to ask ChatGPT to solve such a problem. Does it “understand” enough to set up the problem, can it do the simple algebra needed to solve the problem, and can it then write a decent answer to the question?
So, I gave it this prompt: “My son is 25 years old. How old will he be when I’m twice his age?”4 I bet (but have no data to support) that any student who has passed their first algebra course could handle this.
Setting Up the Problem
Let’s see what ChatGPT did:
Impressively, ChatGPT immediately set this up as an algebra problem with an equation to solve, albeit after wandering down the “25 - x” side path. But the equation is wrong. And so is its attempt to solve the (incorrect) equation. Its conclusion is therefore nonsense.
It continues, helpfully writing an answer that illustrates the solution for specific ages, concluding that, if I’m currently 50, in 25 years my son will be 50 and I’ll be 75 (true) and will be twice his age (false). It then illustrates the solution if I’m currently 40, again incorrectly, and without commenting on how unusual it would be for me to have had a son at age 15. I guess it does happen …
One of the cool features of ChatGPT is that you can, indeed, chat with it. So, I told it that the equation is wrong:
Nice of it to admit its error and apologize. Very personal touch.
It then tells me the “correct equation to use,” which is again wrong. Notice, however, that it carries over from the previous exchange the definitions of x and y. Then it correctly simplifies the new incorrect equation.
Once again, it helpfully summarizes with some specific examples, concluding incorrectly but optimistically that I’ll be 150 when my son is 75.
Helping Out a Bit More
OK, time for me to be a bit more helpful:
I tried again a few hours later and got this:
Cool. It didn’t mangle the correct equation I provided and it correctly solves for y, then gives me the same two examples, this time with correct numbers. It does use future tense to describe examples where present and future tense, respectively, would be appropriate, so even with my direct help ChatGPT couldn’t get the writing right.
Incorrectly Correcting ChatGPT
In the last example, ChatGPT was wrong and I corrected it. It accepted my help magnanimously. I thought that it would be interesting to see how ChatGPT behaves when it is correct, but I tell it, incorrectly, that it is wrong5:
ChatGPT seems both polite and overly deferential.
Lots of Other Examples
The media is aflame with interest in AI, especially in ChatGPT. If you’re interested in reading more examples and some analyses of what others have found, here’s a list you could start with:
A NY Times columnist, Kevin Roose, had a two-hour chat with Bing, which was certainly bizarre bordering on creepy. He reports on his conversation, including a transcript, here and here. If you’d rather listen than read, Roose speaks about his experience on the New York Times’ podcast The Daily on Feb 19th.
The Washington Post reports that Microsoft has addressed some of these problems by limiting the duration and number of chats.
The Washington Post “interviewed” Bing and has posted the transcript here.
Blogger Colin Fraser has written the provocatively titled post ChatGPT: Automatic expensive BS at scale. Let’s just say that he’s a skeptic and presents compelling examples to support his rationale. Although the examples are intermingled with technology discussion, I think that if you skim the post looking for the examples (set off as chat transcripts or in different fonts), you’ll get a lot out of the examples without needing to wade through the technology.
Share Your Examples
I hope that some of you will now be motivated to try your own “chats” with ChatGPT and Bing. Please share your examples and your thoughts in the comments.
We’ll continue on the roadmap outlined above, discussing the history of AI and lessons that we can learn from it.
The investment’s structure is complicated and full detail is not available. At least some of the investment is in the form of massive amounts of computing on Microsoft’s Azure cloud and Microsoft gets a share of OpenAI’s profits until its investment is partially repaid.
There is also an application programming interface (API), which I have not experimented with.
This is a process whereby examples can be given to the generic language model in GPT-3 so that it is more likely to give desired responses, or to write in a desired tone, than it otherwise would.
In real life, I have two sons, neither of them 25.