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The best response to the GPT controversy

GPT stands for Generative pre-trained transformers (GPT), a family of language models by OpenAI, that are generally trained on a large corpus of text data to generate human-like text. The clue is “human-like”. It used to be that apps that generate text that sounds like poetry, or lyrics or even fiction writing, were amusing, and at best, offered some stimulus for new, authentic writing. Not any more. GPT-generated text is apparently sufficiently like the writing produced by humans that it can be mistaken for the real thing. This new application will have expected bad consequences, and the controversy has been escalating.

It’s like the “gonne” that “Leonard of Quirm” innocently invents in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, Men at Arms, not realizing that it will be used to kill. Just because something has been invented, does not mean that it won’t be put to some terrible use. Likely, it will.

Machine language is machine language

I worked for a software company that based its product on its machine-learning system that involved analyzing and reconstructing data (words, numbers and images) in geology, land use and mining.

I briefly worked on the syntax and semantic base of the data, and it was absolute hell to organize and systematize the information, because language, English for example, is per definition idiosyncratic, unsystematic and individualized. Every human expression is as unique as the brain of the person that expresses it. Therein lies the conundrum.

Without machine “learning” (in other words, the program changes and expands as it goes) making it possible for computers to process massive quantities of data, to find patterns and output new text, the Internet will always have limitations: For example, you Google a word, some weird thing comes up which sounds similar but is completely wrong and has nothing to do with your search term. Or you look for a specific picture or footage on an online database, and something comes up which is wrong and unsuitable, because whoever put the image of clip on the website couldn’t spell and didn’t use the right terminology.

Google leads the way in solving this problem because they can do parsing, reorganization and re-coding with mind-bogglingly huge amounts of information and powerful processors. And now there is GPT, or ChatGPT. Every time someone uses ChatGPT to generate text of some sort, it adds to the information that the system has and learns from, and so it grows: more input, better output. This will probably not end well.

As marketing guru Seth Godin wrote in his post on March 11, 2023:

“With GPT arriving, expect that spam is going to increase 100x, and that it will be eerily personalized, invasive and persistent. That it will be really difficult to believe that an email isn’t junk, because there’s going to be so much junk, and it’s going to be harder to filter.”

Seth’s Blog

That’s the problem. It’s like knives. Knives are tools but people can commit murder with them. But it does not help to ban knives. A knife is an inanimate object. It has no morals, scruples or emotions. People do. ChatGPT is a tool that just makes accessible what is already there. The program itself is not evil, dangerous or damaging. The information that it decodes and gives back to you isn’t evil either. Words on the Internet are just code.

The actual people who thought up and wrote the crap and spam and hateful stuff in the first place are evil. That difference is what makes the program both useful, and stupid.

Art is art

Ultimately, ChatGPT or any other form of GPT isn’t going to replace real writing. Not because of the mistakes that the program makes in factuality or grammar, but because it isn’t expressed by a human. Human writing is an expression of humanity. It is one human mind connecting with another human mind. That makes each book, song, or poem identifiably human and unique, and gives it its value. The value is in the artistry.

Nick Cave responds to ChatGPT lyrics

More than this I’m not going to rant about. Nick Cave has the most correct and the most honest response to this development. I’m going to print the quote out and stick it big on my office wall because I’m holding on to the idea. I suggest you bear it in mind as well.

In January 2023, after being sent a song written by ChatGPT “in the style of Nick Cave”, he responded like this on The Red Hand Files (you can also read the imitation lyrics in the post):

“With all the love and respect in the world, this song is bullshit, a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human, and, well, I don’t much like it.”

‘This Song Sucks’, The Guardian UK, Jan 17, 2023

Nick Cave’s response

“What ChatGPT is, in this instance, is replication as travesty. ChatGPT may be able to write a speech or an essay or a sermon or an obituary but it cannot create a genuine song. It could perhaps in time create a song that is, on the surface, indistinguishable from an original, but it will always be a replication, a kind of burlesque.

Songs arise out of suffering, by which I mean they are predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation and, well, as far as I know, algorithms don’t feel. Data doesn’t suffer.

ChatGPT has no inner being, it has been nowhere, it has endured nothing, it has not had the audacity to reach beyond its limitations, and hence it doesn’t have the capacity for a shared transcendent experience, as it has no limitations from which to transcend.

ChatGPT’s melancholy role is that it is destined to imitate and can never have an authentic human experience, no matter how devalued and inconsequential the human experience may in time become.

What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past.

It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognises as their known self.”

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files, ISSUE #218 / JANUARY 2023

Every time I write a poem, lyrics or a piece of music, even posts like these, I recognize that there is a bit of self-murder, as Nick Cave puts it, in there: I’m putting out something that is better than, more than, what I’ve made before. I try to rise above whatever mediocre, dead creation that I made previously. No computer program will ever be able to replicate that process and result, nor improve on it. The same goes for all artists, everywhere.

I’m not worried about whether I, as an artist, will be replaced with a robot or computer program. I worry about the fact that the unique human, artistic expressions of authors that have died, have in the past, and are currently being edited and changed for unjustifiable reasons (probably money). Those publishers have the same indifference towards artistic creations and legacies as the programmers behind a dumb computer program like GPT seem to have. Worry about that, if you will.

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