(Or how to write for CS4FN)
by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London
Follow the news and it is clear that the chatbots are about to take over journalism, novel writing, script writing, writing research papers, … just about all kinds of writing. So how about writing for the CS4FN magazine. Are they good enough yet? Are we about to lose our jobs? Jo asked ChatGPT to write a CS4FN article to find out. Read its efforts before reading on…
As editor I not only wrote but also vet articles and tweak them when necessary to fit the magazine style. So I’ve looked at ChatGPT’s offering as I would one coming from a person …
ChatGPT’s essay writing has been compared to that of a good but not brilliant student. Writing CS4FN articles is a task we have set students in the past: in part to give them experience over how you must write in different styles for different purposes. Different audience? Different writing. Only a small number come close to what I am after. They generally have one or more issues. A common problem when students write for CS4FN is sadly a lack of good grammar and punctuation throughout beyond just typos (basic but vital English skills seem to be severely lacking these days even with spell checking and grammar checking tools to help). Other common problems include a lack of structure, no hook at the start, over-formal writing so the wrong style, no real fun element at all and/or being devoid of stories about people, an obsession with a few subjects (like machine learning!) rather than finding something new to write about. They are also then often vanilla articles about that topic, just churning out looked-up facts rather than finding some new, interesting angle.
How did the chatbot do? It seems to have made most of the same mistakes. At least, chatGPT’s spelling and grammar are basically good so that is a start: it is a good primary school student then! Beyond that it has behaved like the weaker students do… and missed the point. It has actually just written a pretty bog standard factual article explaining the topic it chose, and of course given a free choice, it chose … Machine Learning! Fine, if it had a novel twist, but there are no interesting angles added to the topic to bring it alive. Nor did it describe the contributions of a person. In fact, no people are mentioned at all. It is also using a pretty formal style of writing (“In conclusion…”). Just like humans (especially academics) it also used too much jargon and didn’t even explain all the jargon it did use (even after being prompted to write for a younger audience). If I was editing I’d get rid of the formality and unexplained jargon for starters. Just like the students who can actually write but don’t yet get the subtleties, it hasn’t got the fact that it should have adapted its style, even when prompted.
It knows about structure and can construct an essay with a start, a middle and end as it has put in an introduction and a conclusion. What it hasn’t done though is add any kind of “grab”. There is nothing at the start to really capture the attention. There is no strange link, no intriguing question, no surprising statement, no interesting person…nothing to really grab you (though Jo saved it by adding to the start, the grab that she had asked an AI to write it). It hasn’t added any twist at the end, or included anything surprising. In fact, there is no fun element at all. Our articles can be serious rather than fun but then the grab has to be about the seriousness: linked to bad effects for society, for example.
ChatGPT has also written a very abstract essay. There is little in the way of context or concrete examples. It says, for example, “rules … couldn’t handle complex situations”. Give me an example of a complex situation so I know what you are talking about! There are no similes or metaphors to help explain. It throws in some application areas for context like game-playing and healthcare but doesn’t at all explain them (it doesn’t say what kind of breakthrough has been made to game playing, for example). In fact, it doesn’t seem to be writing in a “semantic wave” style that makes for good explanations at all. That is where you explain something by linking an abstract technical thing you are explaining, to some everyday context or concrete example, unpacking then repacking the concepts. Explaining machine learning? Then illustrate your points with an example such as how machine learning might use movies to predict your voting habits perhaps…and explain how the example does illustrate the abstract concepts such as pointing out the patterns it might spot.
There are several different kinds of CS4FN article. Overall, CS4FN is about public engagement with research. That gives us ways in to explain core computer science though (like what machine learning is). We try to make sure the reader learns something core, if by stealth, in the middle of longer articles. We also write about people and especially diversity, sometimes about careers or popular culture, or about the history of computation. So, context is central to our articles. Sometimes we write about general topics but always with some interesting link, or game or puzzle or … something. For a really, really good article that I instantly love, I am looking for some real creativity – something very different, whether that is an intriguing link, a new topic, or just a not very well known and surprising fact. ChatGPT did not do any of that at all.
Was ChatGPT’s article good enough? No. At best I might use some of what it wrote in the middle of some other article but in that case I would be doing all the work to make it a CS4FN article.
Was it trained on material from CS4FN to allow it to pick up what CS4FN was? We originally assumed so – our material has been freely accessible on the web for 20 years and the web is supposedly the chatbots’ training ground. If so I would have expected it to do much better at getting the style right. I’m left thinking that actually when it is asked to write articles or essays without more guidance it understands, it just always writes about machine learning! (Just like I always used to write science fiction stories for every story my English teacher set, to his exasperation!) We assumed, because it wrote about a computing topic, that it did understand, but perhaps, it is all a chimera. Perhaps it didn’t actually understand the brief even to the level of knowing it was being asked to write about computing and just hit lucky. Who knows? It is a black box. We could investigate more, but this is a simple example of why we need Artificial Intelligences that can justify their decisions!
Of course we could work harder to train it up as I would a human member of our team. With more of the right prompting we could perhaps get it there. Also given time the chatbots will get far better, anyway. Even without that they clearly can now do good basic factual writing so, yes, lots of writing jobs are undoubtedly now at risk (and that includes a wide range of jobs, like lawyers, teachers, and even programmers and the like too) if we as a society decide to let them. We may find the world turns much more vanilla as a result though with writing turning much more bland and boring without the human spark and without us noticing till it is lost (just like modern supermarket tomatoes so often taste bland having lost the intense taste they once had!) … unless the chatbots gain some real creativity.
The basic problem of new technology is it reaps changes irrespective of the human cost (when we allow it to, but we so often do, giddy with the new toys). That is fine if as a society we have strong ways to support those affected. That might involve major support for retraining and education into new jobs created. Alternatively, if fewer jobs are created than destroyed, which is the way we may be going, where jobs become ever scarcer, then we need strong social support systems and no stigma to not having a job. However, currently that is not looking likely and instead changes of recent times have just increased, not reduced inequality, with small numbers getting very, very rich but many others getting far poorer as the jobs left pay less and less.
Perhaps it’s not malevolent Artificial Intelligences of science fiction taking over that is the real threat to humanity. Corporations act like living entities these days, working to ensure their own survival whatever the cost, and we largely let them. Perhaps it is the tech companies and their brand of alien self-serving corporation as ‘intelligent life’ acting as societal disrupters that we need to worry about. Things happen (like technology releases) because the corporation wants them to but at the moment that isn’t always the same as what is best for people long term. We could be heading for a wonderful utopian world where people do not need to work and instead spend their time doing fulfilling things. It increasingly looks like instead we have a very dystopian future to look forward to – if we let the Artificial Intelligences do too many things, taking over jobs, just because they can so that corporations can do things more cheaply, so make more fabulous wealth for the few.
Am I about to lose my job writing articles for CS4FN? I don’t think so. Why do I write CS4FN? I love writing this kind of stuff. It is my hobby as much as anything. So I do it for my own personal pleasure as well as for the good I hope it does whether inspiring and educating people, or just throwing up things to think about. Even if the chatBots were good enough, I wouldn’t stop writing. It is great to have a hobby that may also be useful to others. And why would I stop doing something I do for fun, just because a machine could do it for me? But that is just lucky for me. Others who do it for a living won’t be so lucky.
We really have to stop and think about what we want as humans. Why do we do creative things? Why do we work? Why do we do anything? Replacing us with machines is all well and good, but only if the future for all people is actually better as a result, not just a few.
This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.