AI-powered chatbot that can be scarily good, can be just as bad as the World Health Organisation

A new chatbot called chatGPT* is making waves. Some of its answers are scarily good. For example:

Question: What is a phase transition?

ChatGPT: A phase transition is a change in the physical state of a substance, such as a change from a solid to a liquid or a gas, or vice versa. Phase transitions are driven by changes in temperature, pressure, or other physical factors, and they can occur in both pure substances and mixtures. For example, water undergoes a phase transition from a liquid to a solid (ice) when it is cooled below 0 degrees Celsius, and it undergoes a phase transition from a solid to a gas (water vapor) when it is heated to its boiling point. The study of phase transitions is important in many fields, including chemistry, materials science, and meteorology.

ChatGPT (4th December 2022)

That’s a good answer I would say. The good news is that with answers of that quality, anyone can get pretty clear answers to simple science questions in seconds, just by asking a simple natural language question . The less good news is that our exams are going back to in person only just in time, as clearly we can’t ask students standard questions like this, for online exams or coursework, as they can just ask ChatGPT.

The answer on global warming also looks good:

Question: Is the Earth warming?

ChatGPT: Yes, the Earth is warming. The Earth’s climate is dynamic and changes over time, but over the past century, the average global temperature has been increasing. This warming trend is largely driven by human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases trap heat from the sun and warm the Earth’s surface, causing the temperature to rise. The warming of the Earth has many consequences, including more frequent and severe heatwaves, droughts, and storms, as well as melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It is important to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.

ChatGPT (4th December 2022)

So AI is now a lot better than many silly climate denying human beings. A low bar I guess, but still good to see.

But ChatGPT although a fantastic piece of technology is not magic and is not infallible.

There is a scientific consensus on climate change, which at the level of the question above is settled and found in many many places on the web. I think ChatGPT works by learning from enormous amount of material on the web, so if it sucks in information on climate change from many different websites and looks for common features then I can see how it gets the answer above.

How COVID-19 is transmitted is much less well understood than climate change, and even authorities you would hope know what they are doing, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), have a rather patchy record on getting the basics right. Without such a consensus, I guess even the very advanced algorithms that underlie ChatGPT can do little to manufacture a sensible consensus. So its answer here is quite poor:

Question: How is COVID-19 transmitted?

ChatGPT: COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or they can be inhaled into the lungs. The virus can also be transmitted by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes. It is less commonly spread through close contact with an infected person, such as by shaking hands or hugging. It is important to practice good hygiene, including washing your hands regularly and avoiding close contact with sick people, to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

ChatGPT (4th December 2022),

It is bit of a long shot for a droplet to land in your nose, and I don’t know where it got hugging from. There is no evidence, that I know of, of transmission via hugging. This is a much poorer answer than for climate change where there is a consensus.

It looks like even OpenAI’s extremely advanced AI algorithms can’t escape the old adage: Garbage In Garbage Out. Maybe in areas where there is consensus, ChatGPT is very impressive but where there is no consensus, ChatGPT is just guessing. Guessing in a very smart way, but also sometimes guessing wrong. Bit like the WHO.

* In its own words: ChatGPT is a variant of GPT-3 (Generative Pretrained Transformer 3), which is a state-of-the-art language processing model developed by OpenAI. ChatGPT is specifically designed for conversational language generation, which means it is capable of generating human-like responses to text input in a conversation. It is trained on a large dataset of conversational text and is able to produce responses that are fluent and relevant to the input.

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