Artificial intelligence works magic but at a price: our pride of ownership and sense of purpose.
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By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Like every other journalist I know, I often and unabashedly ask for help. Friends give me ideas. Colleagues give me phrases. Editors suggest what to keep, what to cut and where a key detail belongs. My field of vision is only so wide, my brain only so big. I’d be a fool not to supplement.
But there’s a limit to how much advice I solicit, and it’s determined less by the rapid approach of a deadline or the bedlam of too many chefs than by something else, something emotional and maybe even moral, an admixture of vanity and integrity. Past a certain point of collaboration, I lose the belief that a piece of work is truly and fully mine. I lose the satisfaction of that. I can’t shake the notion that my role in the process was incidental, verging on irrelevant.
I share all of this in the context of the intensifying chatter about what artificial intelligence can do — and about what, specifically, the new chatbot ChatGPT, from the company OpenAI, is already doing.
It’s a surprisingly competent writer and sometimes even a clever one, to the point where early users regard it as “some mix of software and sorcery,” as Kevin Roose explained in a recent article in The Times. (The article’s headline: “The Brilliance and Weirdness of ChatGPT.”) Under the right circumstances, with the right prompt, this cyber Cyrano produces relatively seamless prose of considerable ingenuity.
Educators are spooked, recognizing a specter on the horizon — no, right in front of us — that makes plagiarism look quaint. Last week, The Atlantic published an article, by Stephen Marche, titled “The College Essay Is Dead.” That was followed just three days later by another article, by Daniel Herman, titled “The End of High School English.” I figure “Curtains for the Seventh Grade” will be out next week and, fast on its heels, “Is Literacy Obsolete?”
And I can tell you that here in the lofty precincts of elite academia, conversations about whether a significant fraction of students would be turning in papers generated by A.I. segued quickly into conjecture about whether professors would respond by grading those papers with A.I.
Let’s take human endeavor out of the equation entirely. It’s such an inefficient, unnecessary thing.
But it’s also, well, everything — not by the dictates of productivity, but by measures much more meaningful. It’s the font and province of originality. It’s the cornerstone of identity. We are what we do, and by that I don’t mean the labels affixed to our professions. I mean the stamps of our idiosyncratic contributions, no matter their nature or context. That’s how we bend the universe — our butterfly effect — and how we register that we were here. If we outsource it to A.I., don’t we erase ourselves?
Maybe not. Maybe this is the cusp of a new utopia, in which machines not only assemble our appliances and perform our surgeries but also plot our novels, draft our legislation and write our op-eds while we pop our soma or chew our lotus leaves and congratulate ourselves on the programming and the prompts behind it all.
But I suspect that we’d miss the same feeling — the same fulfillment — that I forfeit when I receive and incorporate more assistance than I went looking for. Pride of ownership would cease to exist. Sense of purpose would vanish with it.
Is ChatGPT a sorcerer or an assassin? It and its kin promise to save us time, sweat and error, but potentially at a price. It’s called pointlessness.
Lessons From the Success of Same-Sex Marriage
Shortly after Thanksgiving, 12 Senate Republicans joined 47 Senate Democrats and two independents to vote for federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Last week, 39 House Republicans joined 219 House Democrats to do likewise, paving the way for the ceremony at the White House on Tuesday during which President Biden signed the legislation. The Respect for Marriage Act is now law.
Three cheers for justice — and another three for comity and cooperation. In an era of such intense partisanship, with examples elsewhere of cultural regression, we should celebrate what we can.
We should also learn. There are lessons in how same-sex marriage traveled, over just a few decades, from a boutique cause even within the Democratic Party to the clear position of a majority of Americans. Here are some, and I hope that activists on a range of fronts heed them:
You often make progress not by shaming people — not by telling them how awful they are — but by suggesting how much better they can be. The latter was a principal tactic of proponents of marriage equality, who frequently emphasized a brighter future they wanted to create, not an ugly past they wanted to litigate.
They did something else that was wise and instructive. They assured Americans that gay and lesbian people weren’t trying to explode a cherished institution and upend a system of values, but instead wanted in.
I spoke recently with Evan Wolfson, the founder of the pivotal advocacy group Freedom to Marry, about all of this. “I don’t want to disparage shouting and demands — everything has its place,” he said, adding that at times, champions of a cause “need to break the silence, we need to push, we need to force.”
“But I used to say, ‘Yes, there’s demanding, but there’s also asking,’” he told me. “And one is not the enemy of the other.”
“Some people need more than a story of injustice, a story of exclusion,” he explained. “While people can be sympathetic to victims, they admire fighters.” And so, he said, the campaign for marriage equality often showcased gay men and lesbians who were working diligently and quietly to create loving partnerships and families despite society’s unwillingness to recognize that. And it asked: “Isn’t it wrong to put barriers in their way?”
“We turned this from ‘what do you think about gay people’ to ‘what do you think about your own values,’” Wolfson said, and he and his allies did that because “people don’t like being accused, people don’t like being condemned, people don’t like being alienated.”
In the end, Wolfson said, “It’s a matter of conversation and persuasion.”
For the Love of Sentences
The Times’s coverage of the World Cup has brimmed with too many standout passages to mention, but here’s a characteristically excellent one from Rory Smith, regarding Portugal’s often underwhelming play: “The country has for years boasted enough individual talent to match any team on the planet and yet, under the aegis of Fernando Santos, it has been assiduously, unapologetically, and in many ways successfully dour, as if a group of the finest artists in the world had been gathered together and asked to wallpaper a bedroom.” (Thanks to John Harris of Flat Rock, N.C., and Jana Moore of Philadelphia, among others, for nominating this.)
Andrew Das, also covering the World Cup for The Times, described a match in which Brazil grew frustrated and “pivoted to some of soccer’s darker arts: dives and flops, shirt pulls and shoves and appeals to the referee for justice. None of it worked. Croatia had brought a vise to a gunfight, and for more than two long hours on Friday it calmly and methodically squeezed the life and the joy out of Brazil.” (Bob Howells, Culver City, Calif., and Rebecca Bosiljevac, Tacoma, Wash., among others)
Continuing with The Times, A.O. Scott had priceless nuggets in three recent movie reviews.
Of a principal character in “White Noise,” he wrote: “In the campus lunchroom, he sits in on bull sessions with colleagues, inhaling gusts of competitive explanation.” (Phillip Hinrichs, Dayton, Ohio)
Visitors to the home of the obese recluse at the center of “The Whale” include “a bird that occasionally shows up outside Charlie’s window. I’m not an ornithologist, but my guidebook identifies it as a Common Western Metaphor.” (Elise Marton, Princeton, N.J., and Ruth Botwinik, Manhattan, among many others)
And the message of “Empire of Light” is “muddled and soft, like a Milk Dud at the bottom of the box, and the movie chews on it for quite a while.” (Jameson Riser, Anacortes, Wash., and Zanthe Taylor, Brooklyn, N.Y., among others)
And Bret Stephens rued our country’s trajectory: “Pretty depressing how American culture has descended from ‘My Dinner With Andre’ to that dinner with Kanye.” (Keith Bernard, Charlotte, N.C., and Maura Kealey, San Francisco, among others)
An unsigned article in The Economist asserted: “Trying to learn about sex from Hollywood is like watching James Bond for tips on a career as a British civil servant.” (Ebba Akerman, Stockholm)
In New York magazine, Justin Davidson examined the “dense white nugget of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church,” which was designed by the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava and is perched next to One World Trade at the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan: “Here, at a spot named for commerce, blighted by violence, rebuilt in memory, and ringed by fresh monsters of capitalism, this small, flickering candle of a building has an outsize moral role.” (Chris Cherry, Pittsburgh)
In The New York Review of Books, Stacy Schiff wrote: “The novelist rings at the door and spirits you off; the essayist invites herself in.” (Shoshana Halle, Walnut Creek, Calif.)
Finally, while I usually don’t showcase quotes within articles as opposed to the article author’s own words, I’m making an exception this week because so many of you nominated the Republican adviser Dan McLagan’s description of Herschel Walker’s beleaguered Senate candidacy, as quoted by Greg Bluestein in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Herschel was like a plane crash into a train wreck that rolled into a dumpster fire. And an orphanage. Then an animal shelter. You kind of had to watch it squinting through one eye between your fingers.” (Pam Peniston, San Francisco, and Dawn Moss, Lawrenceville, Ga., among many others)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, put “Sentences” in the subject line and include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note (Errors and Explanations Edition)
Color me chastened and slightly embarrassed: I wrote last week that the phrase “no worries” always sounds “faux-British in an American context.” Many of you contacted me to point out that it’s an import not from the United Kingdom but from Australia. Of course! As soon as I started reading your emails, I saw and heard Paul Hogan in “Crocodile Dundee” saying those very words decades ago. Please forgive me. But do not respond to my request for absolution with the dread words at the heart of this matter.
Several of you also took issue with my thumbs-down, in that same newsletter, for “it is what it is.” What, you asked, could I possibly have against the emotional and spiritual ability to surrender to the unchangeable, to accept the inevitable, to make peace with imperfection? The answer: Nothing! I just think there are better ways to express that acceptance, and there are instances aplenty when “it is what it is” communicates glibness, not Zen.
Last week I also explored the pleasures of living alone, and that clearly struck a chord: Hundreds of you chimed in to say that you, too, bristle at the assumptions that others make about our households of one. Several of you used a word that I wish I had: solitude. That’s what we have and what we relish and what sometimes gets mistaken for loneliness or mislabeled as isolation.
Several of you also brought up an adjacent misimpression: that people without children failed in their attempts to have them, are failing everybody else or are somehow incomplete. Or can’t process the world in the same deeply feeling, exquisitely concerned way that parents do. One reader noted how common — and how grating — it is when television news journalists weigh in after the latest school shooting with some version of the statement, “As a parent, I really understand this.”
We childless people really understand it, too, because while we don’t have offspring, we have hearts and brains. We have souls and consciences. We care about a world beyond ourselves, just as parents do, and we care about the future, even if we won’t have direct descendants in it.
To that end, I’ve never noticed some stark dividing line between how parents (or grandparents) and childless people vote, with the former group demonstrating greater concern for a safe, clean, civil society. People aren’t reducible that way. We’re maddeningly and gloriously complicated, and we’d do better by one another to hold tight to that thought.
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