New Yorker - "ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web"
By Ted Chiang
"Obviously, no one can speak for all writers, but let me make the argument that starting with a blurry copy of unoriginal work isn’t a good way to create original work. If you’re a writer, you will write a lot of unoriginal work before you write something original. And the time and effort expended on that unoriginal work isn’t wasted; on the contrary, I would suggest that it is precisely what enables you to eventually create something original. The hours spent choosing the right word and rearranging sentences to better follow one another are what teach you how meaning is conveyed by prose. Having students write essays isn’t merely a way to test their grasp of the material; it gives them experience in articulating their thoughts. If students never have to write essays that we have all read before, they will never gain the skills needed to write something that we have never read.
And it’s not the case that, once you have ceased to be a student, you can safely use the template that a large language model provides. The struggle to express your thoughts doesn’t disappear once you graduate—it can take place every time you start drafting a new piece. Sometimes it’s only in the process of writing that you discover your original ideas. Some might say that the output of large language models doesn’t look all that different from a human writer’s first draft, but, again, I think this is a superficial resemblance. Your first draft isn’t an unoriginal idea expressed clearly; it’s an original idea expressed poorly, and it is accompanied by your amorphous dissatisfaction, your awareness of the distance between what it says and what you want it to say. That’s what directs you during rewriting, and that’s one of the things lacking when you start with text generated by an A.I.
There’s nothing magical or mystical about writing, but it involves more than placing an existing document on an unreliable photocopier and pressing the Print button. It’s possible that, in the future, we will build an A.I. that is capable of writing good prose based on nothing but its own experience of the world. The day we achieve that will be momentous indeed—but that day lies far beyond our prediction horizon. In the meantime, it’s reasonable to ask, What use is there in having something that rephrases the Web? If we were losing our access to the Internet forever and had to store a copy on a private server with limited space, a large language model like ChatGPT might be a good solution, assuming that it could be kept from fabricating. But we aren’t losing our access to the Internet. So just how much use is a blurry jpeg, when you still have the original?"
The Writing of Ted Chiang (Jan. 2020)
Arrival (Oct. 2016)