Gibberish from the Machine
I’m honored that Germany’s Stern asked me to write about AI and journalism for a 75th anniversary edition. Here’s a version prior to final editing and trimming for print and translation. And I learned a new word: Kauderwelsch (“The variety of Romansch spoken in the Swiss town of Chur (Kauder) in canton Graubünden) means gibberish.
We have Gutenberg to blame. It is because of his invention, print, that society came to think of public discourse, creativity, and news as “content,” a commodity to fill the products we call publications or lately websites. Journalists believe that their value resides primarily in making content. To fill the internet’s insatiable maw, reporters at some online sites are given content quotas, and their news organizations no longer appoint editors-in-chief but instead “chief content officers.” For the record, Stern still has actual editors, many of them.
And now here comes a machine — generative artificial intelligence or large language models (LLMs), such as ChatGPT — that can create no end of content: text that sounds just like us because it has been trained on all our words. An LLM maps the trillions of relationships among billions of words, turning them and their connections into numbers a computer can calculate. LLMs have no understanding of the words, no conception of truth. They are programmed only to predict the next most likely word to occur in a sentence.
A New York lawyer named Steven Schwartz had to learn his lesson about ChatGPT’s factual fallibility the hard way. In a now-infamous case, attorney Schwartz asked ChatGPT for precedents in a lawsuit involving an errant airline snack cart and his client’s allegedly injured knee. Schwartz needed to find cases relating to highly technical issues of international treaties and bankruptcy. ChatGPT dutifully delivered more than a half-dozen citations.
As soon as Schwartz’s firm filed the resulting legal brief in federal court, opposing counsel said they could not find the cases, and the judge, P. Kevin Castel, directed the lawyers to produce them. Schwartz returned to ChatGPT. The machine is programmed to tell us what we want to hear, so when Schwartz asked whether the cases were real, ChatGPT said they were. Schwartz then asked ChatGPT to…