A robot did not write this

The late Edwin Morgan, the first Scots Makar, wrote a poem in the 1960s titled The Computer’s First Christmas Card. His representation of the machine’s efforts at composition was an amusing jumble of gibberish: a random concatenation of words more or less recognisable as seasonal greetings. Computer technology has moved on since then, and today’s systems, if asked to write Christmas greetings, or a love letter or a technical article, might well produce something that a reader could recognise as a grammatically sound, genre-appropriate and well-structured piece of language.

OpenAI’s GPT-3 language generator, created with a $1-billion investment from Microsoft, is the largest language model ever created and can generate amazing human-like text on demand. By scouring the net for published works it can mimic the style of a nominated writer. You can take a look at some amusing examples of GPT-3’s written output here and interact directly here by posing questions at Philosopher AI – though access to the great digital philosopher comes at a price: $3 for a ‘10-pack’ of questions.

But is it any good? Is it even writing?

Traditionally, we think of writing as a technique to capture ideas and convey them from one mind to another through the medium of language. Through writing we can look into the minds of men and women who lived and wrote long before we were born. But what if there is no ‘mind’ behind the writer? What, in that case, is being conveyed by the text? What does it mean for the process of ‘communication’ if all the conscious thought in the deal is on the side of the reader?

We have a low bar when it comes to spotting intelligence. If something looks smart, we generally give it the benefit of the doubt. GPT-3 is unquestionably a powerful way to generate text quickly, but it is still a tool created by humans, with all the flaws and limitations that implies. It might produce text that reads well, up to a point, but this does not bring us any closer to true machine intelligence.

It does, however, prompt us to contemplate some serious questions. What does it mean to be intelligent? What does it mean to be a writer? What does it mean to be human? The big questions are always the most intriguing.