My So-So Encounters with ChatGPT

A mountain man buys his first chain saw. He comes back to the store a week later complaining that it cuts down only two trees a day when he was told it would cut down 20. The service person says, “Well, let’s see what the trouble is,” and starts it up. The mountain man jumps back and asks, “What’s that noise?” (He’d been sawing without the engine on.)

I feel like that mountain man when it comes to ChatGPT, the powerful new artificial intelligence chatbot that seemingly everyone is experimenting with. I got mediocre results from ChatGPT because I didn’t try very hard to use it properly. Other people have gotten amazing results because they’re smarter and more purposeful about how they use it — they yank its pull cord and get its engine going.

I confess that my first idea was to figure out what ChatGPT could not do rather than what it could. It won’t offer opinions. It’s not up on anything that’s happened since it was trained last year. It doesn’t have a body so it has never been to Ireland. (One of my questions.)

I somehow got into a conversation with ChatGPT about words that change their spelling when they’re Anglicized from French. ChatGPT gave “ballet” as an example. But “ballet” is spelled the same in both languages. Hah, it made a mistake! I felt as if I’d scored a win for the human race.

But what a shallow win.

Other people have done better because they’ve accentuated the positive. On YouTube I found a video of a computer guy, Jason Fleagle, asking ChatGPT, “Can you create a web app using HTML, CSS and Javascript that has a form that takes in a stock ticker symbol for a company and then on form submission displays the stock market performance of that particular company?” ChatGPT did that and more. The code wasn’t perfect — there was a bug somewhere — but Fleagle said, “As you can see, I just saved myself, like, a lot of time.” There are dozens of such examples. ChatGPT can even rewrite software into a different programming language.

“I introduced my undergraduate entrepreneurship students to the new A.I. system, and before I was done talking, one of my students had used it to create the code for a start-up prototype using code libraries they had never seen before,” Ethan Mollick, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, wrote in Harvard Business Review on Wednesday. Mollick himself used ChatGPT to rough out a course syllabus, class assignments, grading criteria and lecture notes.

ChatGPT strikes me as an example of what economists call “skill-biased technical change.” It is incredibly powerful in the hands of people who already have skills and ideas because they know what to ask it for. You have two options. You can do a better job than ChatGPT, whether it’s writing or coding, or you can admit your inferiority but figure out a way to make ChatGPT work for you. If you can’t do either, you may need to find a different line of work. Maybe a lot of us will become superfluous and depend on a universal basic income. That would be unfortunate.

Me, I’m still hoping I can outdo ChatGPT and stay employed a while longer. But the truth is, ChatGPT is a powerful language model that is capable of generating humanlike text. As it continues to improve and become more advanced, it’s possible that it could displace people in certain writing-related professions. For example, it could potentially be used to automate the writing of articles, reports and other written content, which could lead to job losses for writers and researchers. However, it’s important to note that ChatGPT is still a tool, and that it will likely be used to augment and assist human workers rather than fully replace them.

Did that last paragraph sound uninspired? Maybe it’s because I let ChatGPT write it for me (a good gimmick); I gave it the first sentence and asked it to fill in the rest. That’s not good journalistic practice. The writer needs to remain the writer. If all I ever manage to do with ChatGPT is get it to do my job — Hey, listen, can you take the wheel while I eat a sandwich? — I deserve whatever I get. I need to figure out how to use the chain saw.

The Readers Write

I was just reading your newsletter about American railroads and I was stunned. Everything, absolutely everything you wrote gave me a sense of déjà vu. We face the same problems in Germany, and the causes are the same: Freight train yards were shut down in the last decades, direct tracks to customers were removed. Costs were reduced by all means. Lately Deutsche Bahn is hiring several thousands of people and massively investing in infrastructure. Now the private railroads are the ones who are trying to lower the costs and they are repeating the errors of the past!

Michael Kreutner
Hövelhof, Germany

Quote of the Day

“‘Darling,’ said Judy, ‘Daddy doesn’t build roads or hospitals, and he doesn’t help build them, but he does handle the bonds for the people who raise the money.’


‘Yes. Just imagine that a bond is a slice of cake, and you didn’t bake the cake, but every time you hand somebody a slice of the cake a tiny little bit comes off, like a little crumb, and you can keep that.’”

— Tom Wolfe, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987)

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