The following column is written by me and, to clarify, I am a human being.
Increasingly, fellow members of my species have reason to question that what they read – from online customer support chats to college essays and perhaps the news they consume – is in fact coming from a human rather than a personable robot.
The “robot” in this sense would be open-source software using artificial intelligence to research topics and write original answers. Can it write newspaper articles? Sure! Just give it a topic and some context.
So, I’ll pause here and ask: Do you believe that I have written these four paragraphs, or was it ChatGPT, the language-based model from OpenAI that is dominating the headlines recently?
First, I wrote it. It is not my most stirring prose so perhaps I should have employed AI to spiff it up. Second, it is increasingly harder to tell the difference – you can check out some side-by-side examples here, or be the judge in a sonnet-writing contest between software and wetware (tech jargon for people).
Last: Does it matter and, if so, how and why? All of this has social observers and ethicists abuzz with a mixture of awe and anxiety. Even if ChatGPT had written this column, it doesn’t have the prepossession and will and motivation to do so – I’d have to launch it and give it the parameters. It is a tool in human hands.
Our company is not using artificial intelligence to write original content, although in some areas of the country it is working with a vendor that uses “process automation” to ingest real-estate data and turn that into templated lists of transactions. Also, we use an AI program to assist in determining which MLive stories are best candidates for “Subscriber Exclusives.”
Chatbots join the parade of tools and processes invented over the centuries by the likes of Gutenberg and Whitney and Ford. Those all advanced industry, culture and society – and created a lot of disruption for a lot of people. But the very definition of “advance” is forward.
During my first week as a professional reporter in 1982, technicians came into the newsroom and installed computer terminals. My more skeptical colleagues refused to give up their electric typewriters and stuffed them under their desks.
“When those things fail, we’ll get your paper out for you,” a copy editor grunted at our boss. Suffice to say, the typewriters gathered dust – and it’s a fair bet that the copy editor became more efficient at his job.
Every technological advance, big and small, has changed the way we work. Hot type (literally melted lead) gave way to cold type in that computerized era, then to direct-to-plate technology. The internet shook newspapers financially, but also opened a world of reporting resources at our fingertips. Heck, even the humble fax machine changed the immediacy of news.
I like a good sci-fi movie as much as the next person, but so far ChatGPT doesn’t appear to be a malevolent force run amok (even if some people are reporting really creepy interactions with ChatGPT that border on “2001: A Space Odyssey”).
It has always come down to how humans employ technology. I don’t mean for efficiencies; I mean for good. If AI streamlines rote work so that our employees can do more original reporting in our communities, or we provide more quantity with better depth and breadth, then not only is that a good thing but it’s progress. Same as it ever was.
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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.