Sean of the South: AI

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sean dietrich w dogBy Sean Dietrich

There is a lot of talk in the writing community about how artificial intelligence chatbots are going to replace authors someday. The fear is that AI will take real writing jobs and we writers will eventually be forced to live in refrigerator cartons beneath an overpass.

This does not scare me because, as an English major, I know from experience that if you choose the right overpass, it’s not so bad.

To further investigate the matter of AI, I signed up for ChatGPT, which is a robot developed by OpenAI. This language-based bot can, without doing any legwork or actual research, piece together fragments of quasi-true information gleaned from the internet and write incredibly crappy essays. Exactly like us writers.

What frightens us writers, however, is that you can ask ChatGPT to write in the style of ANY author, and the computer will mimic an author’s unique prose and voice.

I decided to test this. I logged in and asked the chatbot a few questions. First I asked the chatbot if it had feelings.

“No, I am not sentient. I am a machine learning model called GPT-3.5, designed to generate human-like text based on the input I receive. I lack consciousness, self-awareness, and true understanding. My responses are generated based on patterns and information from data I was trained on.”

Next, I asked ChatGPT to write 50 words in the style of Sean Dietrich. Which is me. This is where things got scary. Here is what the chatbot wrote:

“Let me tell y’all a little somethin’ ‘bout a Southern breeze on a lazy afternoon. It’s like Grandma’s sweet tea, cool and a’comfortin’. Makes you forget your worries and sets your soul a’dancin’. So sit for a spell, listen close, and let that breeze a’carry you to simpler times.”

I had to laugh. Because, for starters, we did not call my grandmother “Grandma,” she was always “Granny.” And Granny’s sweet tea was not “cool and a’comfortin’,” it was laced with enough Domino sugar to rot your gums and cause type-II diabetes. Thirdly, I do not replace G’s on the ends of my words with apostrophes. That is a’stupid.

Then, I asked the computer when Sean Dietrich was born.

“As of my last update,” said ChatGPT, “Sean Dietrich was born on April 5, 1977. You can calculate his age based on that information.”

False. I was not born on April 5, 1977. I was born December 29, 1864.

So I asked the computer to write a country song in the style of Sean Dietrich. Here is what it produced:

“Well, gather ‘round, my friends, for story time,
“In the land of sweet tea, where the sun does shine,
“From Alabama to Georgia’s pines so tall,
“I’ll spin you a tale, and you’ll laugh and fall.”

That hurt. I would never start a song with the words “Gather ‘round, my friends,” unless I was playing the role of Professor Harold Hill. Secondly: “You’ll laugh and fall”?

I went a little deeper and asked the chatbot to write about fireflies in my style. Mainly, because I recently wrote a column about fireflies and I wanted to compare the two examples to see how closely AI captured my voice.

The computer wrote: “As I recline on my porch, imbibing sweet tea and observing fireflies weave their esoteric spell in the miasma of night, I am reminded that life’s most prepossessing moments are often the unexacting ones, akin to the trifling creatures that paint the darkness with incessant light.”

Here’s what I actually wrote about fireflies in a recent column: “I like lightning bugs. They have little butts that glow.”

Eventually, I began noticing a trend. The computer was under the impression that all Sean Dietrich does is sit on porches and sip sweet tea. Which is totally untrue. Sometimes I sit beneath overpasses.

So I asked the computer to write something about sweet tea in the style of Sean Dietrich.
“Sweet tea has memories woven into every drop. It’s laughter at family picnics, whispered confessions on a first date, and the comforting presence of Grandma’s rocking chair as she passed her afternoons drinking the elixir that quenches thirst and nurtures the soul.”

Not bad. But false. For starters, my granny did not use a “rocking chair.” She had a rusted steel patio glider that was covered in tetanus. Secondly: Granny did not go to the porch to drink “elixir that quenches the thirst and nurtures the soul.” She went to the porch to dip Copenhagen and read her Bible.

I asked ChatGPT to list the titles of my most recent books.
“Here are some recent titles from author Sean Dietrich:
—‘American Conversations’
—‘A Lizard Named Percy’
—‘PawPaw Eats A Quilt’
—‘Moby Dick’”

PawPaw does what? None of these are true except the last one.

Finally, I asked the computer to write something about highway overpasses in the style of Sean Dietrich. This is what it actually wrote:

“A highway overpass is a snapshot of all the lives passing beneath it. As you drive beneath an overpass, take a moment to listen—you might hear the echoes of stories left behind, the stories of journeys taken, and the endless hum of life as it quickly changes. So the next time you are beneath an overpass, tip your hat to the poor souls you see underneath the bridge, for they are relics, silent witnesses to the beautiful mess of human existence.”

We’re all a’screwed.