Call Me GPT-3
What happened when I fed an advanced AI Melville and asked it to write more.
Some days ago — never mind how many precisely — having little or no supervision and nothing much to occupy me at my desk, I thought I would tempt the fates by testing whether a computer could do my job better than I.
I asked GPT-3 to write substantial fiction.
If you haven’t heard of GPT-3, it is an advanced AI platform from OpenAI. In the simplest terms, it’s essentially a sophisticated pattern-recognition program which has read trillions of words. You can give it prompts, and it will try to finish them by basing its response on billions of past examples.
In this case, I decided to prompt it with the first few lines of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and see if it came up with anything worth reading.
The results were astonishing. Now I should say that while I’m not an AI developer, I’ve been working in and around the stuff for years and have never seen it as much of a threat to real human creativity.
However, the results of this test — which took less than a minute to complete — changed my mind. While the output shows some of the limitations of AI in creative writing (the bottom takes a turn for the weird) the program was able to output some hauntingly beautiful prose.
And while the computer doesn’t understand the implications of what it’s writing in the same way that a human does, it’s possible that it’s just good enough not to matter. That people will still read it. I saw this and realized we’re on the verge of a seismic shift.
This was the experiment that led to the creation of the AI for Writers newsletter.
First, here are Melville’s words, fed to the computer.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
And this is what the computer wrote when asked to continue the story (bolding is mine)…
But, to be sure, the reason of this, as of many other things, is too obvious to be told. Why is it that men love to be sailors, but not cod-fishers, or herring-fishers? It is, because a sailor’s life is a freer life than that of anybody else. He is not chained to an oar; he is not shackled to anything. rolex watches for sale
The very moment he comes aboard, he steps out of the old harness, and falls to promenading the deck, like a man in a garden. He is not expected to pull hard, and sweat, and blubber, and gasp, and swear, and get red in the face. No, no; all that was to be done ashore; and being done, it is over, and he comes to the sea. He must have liberty, too; he must be able to have his own way, and do what his own way bids him.
Note the strange inclusion of the rolex watches for sale — perhaps the only reminder that this was written by a computer with little understanding of the concepts it was stringing together. The voice is very similar to Melville’s, the sentiment is profound, and the punctuation nearly perfect.
The next bit was perhaps my favorite…
He is not forced to take his chance with a thousand others in a ten-thousandth part of a square mile, to all appearance too small for a graveyard.
Are you kidding me?
Taking your chances with a thousand others in a ten-thousandth part of a square mile, to all appearance too small for a graveyard…
If there has ever been a better description for the claustrophobic struggle of life in the cities, I do not think I’ve read it.
In fact, I thought this was so beautiful, I wondered if the computer perhaps took it verbatim from a human writer. But a Google search for the quote reveals just a single result — the tweet thread where I posted this story a few days ago.
As far as I can tell, this is a completely original line.
This struck me the most, because it made me question whether the human writer isn’t actually what makes great writing great, but rather, the reader, the interpretation they have of the prose, and (in the case of two humans) the shared experience that comes from one person describing life in a way another can relate to.
To be honest, I still haven’t fully reconciled with this. I fundamentally believe that humans still play a crucial (I’d like to say the crucial) role in storytelling. But this line has me wondering what that role is.
The computer then continues…
He is not to be put in a strait-jacket, and hung up for safe keeping. He is not to be sent to sea upon a shelf, and kept there. He is not to be made a slave of, or sent to work like an ox. He is a man, and a gentleman, and he must be treated as such.
Again, the prose is superb, and while the computer perhaps doesn’t understand the meaning, we human readers are able to inject meaning and imagery into all of this.
Then, the picture starts to get a little fuzzy as I pushed GPT-3 to come up with more.
This is a brief preamble; but I thought it necessary to make it, in order that you may perceive what it is that has driven me to sea. Now I have a fancy that if a man should succeed in what I am going to attempt, it will be almost as great a wonder as if he should succeed in climbing to the moon. At least, if the man has never been there before, that is my way of thinking about it. I am the only man living who could have possibly undertaken such a thing; and as for any other man of the whole race, who might have been brought up for it, he would very likely have gone to sea on purpose to avoid it.
The words sound like they mean something. But it has that just-hard-enough structure — like reading Shakespeare as a kid — where you don’t feel really confident that you’re picking up on the message.
Like two lines diverging, it’s almost as if the computer is grasping for something meaningful to say, and just ties meaningful words and phrases together.
Then things fall completely off the rails as the computer goes on a tangent about how whales are like Holland cheeses.
Now, one word more, and I will end this preamble. I have not been at sea very long, and yet long enough to get a glimpse from the mast-heads, of what I may call the heart of the whale. The largest land animal, as the largest sea animal, is a sort of stupendous tub—a bathtub—and when you have seen one, you have seen all. The whale is just such another.
In shape, he is not so much like a tub as a Holland cheese, for in one end he is like a cheese, and in the other end he is like a tub. If you will have a small cheese made, it will have the shape of a great tub. But if you have a tub, and will turn it upside down, and make four or five holes in the bottom of it, and two or three in the top, then it will have the shape of a cheese. I do not say that it will weigh just as much as a cheese, for I do not know; but I do say it will weigh very nearly as much.
So in the end, a test like this makes 2 things pretty clear:
First, that AI still needs human oversight in order to write cohesive text. In fact, very few AI developers would disagree with this, given that AI can also introduce all kinds of factual errors and biases into text based on how it’s trained.
Despite the need for (some) human oversight, it would not be fair to say that AI is completely incapable of producing profound and beautiful prose. The implications of this are profound, and we are all sitting at the tip of the spear.