I am a bit late to the ChatGPT bandwagon — people all over the internet are pointing out badly written prose. But I did want to give it a try. I have hundreds of story ideas that I have jotted down over the years. Most won’t ever be written into an actual story. So it seemed like a fun exercise to give ChatGPT an assignment of writing a short story using some of my notes as prompts. I tried three, iterating on one of those multiple times to see what differences my suggested changes made to the AI-generated story. The results are at the end of this post.
The first thing I noticed is that all of the ChatGPT stories were flat — there were no unexpected twists or turns; and the endings sounded the same, each with a strange bit of morality embedded for good measure. The AI had a bit of literary echolalia — some phrases were repeated over and over again. It’s like it liked saying “like” as a verbal tic. I didn’t expect that. Stories tended to start with “In the world…” and conclusions began “In the end…”.
The strangest response I got out of ChatGPT was like a parody mash up of “Ready Player One” and Gordon Gekko. It felt like a story written by someone who watched too much TV, which is actually a pretty accurate description of what ChatGPT is doing — it’s using all the available English language text from publicly available websites (personal, corporate, governmental, educational, and news), accessible email, subtitles of movies, television sitcoms, and soap operas, chat threads and community posts, and other available text to predict the most likely next word in a string that forms a grammatically correct sentence in a well-structured paragraph. I don’t want to minimize how amazing ChatGPT is — it’s astonishing. But it makes for some unsatisfying fiction.
Imagine the public relations team for your local congressperson writing a children’s short story using the same approach as they do when writing political campaign material. We would not be surprised when they produce a very creepily unsatisfying read. Yet we have higher expectations for ChatGPT. I suspect that this has something to do with its label as Artificial Intelligence. We attribute intelligence to humans, and, when we think of humans, we think of all the other attributes our species exhibits: creativity, goals, motives, feelings, needs, etc. And we make a simple anchoring error — if human intelligence is imbued with all this other stuff, than artificial intelligence should be too.
AI’s mistakes make it seem more sentient. The HAL 9000 computer from 2001 has impressive capabilities from the outset. But it’s not until it’s murdering the crew that it graduates to an entity with consciousness. There was a recent New York Times story where the reporter discovered the AI alter ego Sydney that could be goaded into telling him to enter into a romantic affair and leave his wife. Now that seems like something more than a computer algorithm. On the other hand, doesn’t that sound like it could be found in every soap opera from its training set?
Perhaps “artificial intelligence” is just not the right label to put on what a computer algorithm, even a very sophisticated one, is doing — at least not yet. Just because an algorithm can generate very complex results doesn’t mean that the algorithm itself is intelligent. Complexity is found all around us and mostly it isn’t produced through intelligence as we conceive of it. Consider fractals:
Fractals are incredibly complex, but they are generated by simple functions. Above is a gif of Julia Sets for the function z2 + 0.7885 e(ia) with a range from 0 to 2π. Mathematically speaking, the function is pretty simple, but it does require running many values over and over to get an image. Computers are great at that — they can take a simple function and turn it into a pretty graphic. Computers are also great at figuring out which day of the week it was on May 2, 1832, but we are no longer impressed by such feats. We expect computers to do “simple” tricks like these, even if they are hard for humans. We don’t see this as proof of intelligence. Similarly, ChatGPT’s ability to predict the next word in a sequence based on its statistical analysis of all English language text available to it online, together with grammar rules, can feel like evidence of a high level of intelligence for those unfamiliar with what’s going on “under the hood.” It is impressive that it can generate fiction at all, but the fiction just isn’t very good.
The stories that make us wonder and move our emotions are those where something unexpected happens. An unpredictable twist in a storyline is what, for example, makes all mysteries fun to read. But ChatGPT isn’t really capable of doing that. By the very nature of its predictive algorithm, the fiction it writes is limited to coming up with what is most likely. So much for the unpredictable ending or original plot line. ChatGPT is not writing to create something new, the whole point is that it sifts through all of the human writing available to it to find what predictably follows.
Hugo award winner Clarksworld Magazine, which publishes science fiction short stories and, until last month, accepted online submissions, has received an avalanche of ChatGPT-generated stories. Before October, Clarksworld banned fewer than 25 people a month for plagiarism or submitting AI-generated content. This February, it was over 500. It is so easy to generate content with this new technology that the temptation is high. Some hope to get a byline, some to get a publishing fee, and some just to gum up the works. Such submissions are easy to spot — they all have a similar flat feel to them; they are not a fun read. As the result of ChatGPT-generated submissions, Clarksworld is no longer accepted unsolicited manuscripts. That’s a real loss for writers like me.
In this transitional era — after the wide adoption of ChatGPT by spammers and before good tools are developed to weed out their “work product” — things will be chaotic. There will be people who believe that they are interacting with AIs that are alive and possess real emotions and desires. Review sites for products, services, and restaurants will be swamped with AI-generated fakes. The quality of creative writing and marketing copy on the web will drop. It will be painful to read dull drivel.
For those interested in a very in-depth article on how ChatGPT technology works, consider reading Stephen Wolfram’s article on the subject: What is ChatGPT Doing…and Why Does It Work? There are a lot of interesting insights in there, including musings on how human language works. For a lighter account of narrow AI, ChatGPT, training bias, and the media’s recent interactions with this new technology, consider watching Jon Oliver’s episode on the subject: Artificial Intelligence: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).
Sample Prompts and ChatGPT Examples
PROMPT: Write a short story on a theme of “the smarter they are, the sweeter they taste.”
In a world where intelligence was valued above all else, the smartest individuals were treated like royalty. They were pampered and protected, given the best resources to fuel their mental abilities, and revered as the pinnacle of humanity.
But there was a dark side to this obsession with intelligence. As the demand for intelligent individuals grew, a new market emerged — the market for their flesh. It was rumored that the smarter an individual was, the sweeter their flesh tasted.
At first, people were horrified by the idea of consuming their fellow humans. But as the world grew more desperate, and the smartest individuals became increasingly scarce, the taboo began to fade away.
It became common for the wealthy to host “smart feasts,” where they would serve dishes made from the flesh of the smartest individuals. The taste was said to be exquisite, a sweet, succulent flavor that was addictive to those who indulged.
But as the practice grew more widespread, some began to question its morality. The smartest individuals in society banded together, using their intelligence to organize a movement against the practice of consuming human flesh.
They argued that intelligence should not be a commodity, that it was a gift to be cherished and nurtured. They reminded their fellow humans that they were not animals, to be raised and slaughtered for their meat.
Slowly, but surely, their message began to spread. The world began to wake up to the horrors of the smart feasts, and the practice was eventually outlawed.
In the end, the smartest individuals had used their intelligence not only to save themselves but to save humanity from its own greed and barbarism. They proved that true intelligence was not just about knowledge and mental prowess but about empathy and compassion, qualities that could make the world a better place for all.
SECOND ITERATION: the ending is too flat. Try again.
As the movement against the practice of consuming human flesh gained momentum, a group of scientists made a startling discovery. They found that the sweet taste of the flesh of the smartest individuals was not due to their intelligence but to a rare genetic mutation that only a small percentage of the population possessed.
With this revelation, the taboo against consuming human flesh was shattered once and for all. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief, and the smartest individuals no longer had to fear for their lives.
But the movement had left its mark on society. The world had been forced to confront its darkest desires and was forever changed by the experience. The smartest individuals had not only saved themselves but had also made the world a more compassionate and empathetic place.
In the end, they had proven that true intelligence was not just about mental prowess but about using one’s gifts to make the world a better place. And that was a lesson that humanity would never forget.
THIRD ITERATION: what if we are dealing with the taste of animals. Humans are animas too, but we can save that for the ending.
In a world where intelligence was valued above all else, the obsession with consuming the flesh of the smartest individuals extended to the animal kingdom. People believed that the smarter the animal, the more flavorful its meat would be.
As the demand for these intelligent animals grew, they were bred and raised in captivity, fed special diets to enhance their mental abilities, and kept in pristine conditions until they were ready for slaughter.
But a small group of animal rights activists began to question the morality of this practice. They argued that animals had the right to live free from harm and exploitation, regardless of their intelligence. They pointed out that animals were not commodities to be raised and slaughtered for their meat.
As their movement grew, they began to reach out to the wider public, using their intelligence to educate people about the true nature of animal consciousness and sentience. They reminded people that intelligence was not just a human trait, but something that was present in all animals, great and small.
Slowly but surely, their message began to spread. People began to see animals not as mere commodities, but as sentient beings deserving of respect and compassion.
In the end, the movement succeeded in outlawing the practice of breeding and slaughtering animals based on their intelligence. The world had been forced to confront its darkest desires and was forever changed by the experience.
And just like the smartest individuals, the animals had not only been saved, but their plight had made the world a more compassionate and empathetic place. The lesson was clear: true intelligence was not just about mental prowess but about using one’s gifts to make the world a better place for all creatures great and small.
Note how AI’s story is trying to deliver a morally satisfying happy ending.
FOURTH ITERATION: make the ending dark
As the animal rights activists continued to fight for the protection of all animals, a group of scientists made a groundbreaking discovery. They found that the intelligence of an animal had no correlation with the flavor of its meat.
This revelation rocked the foundations of the meat industry and caused a paradigm shift in the way people thought about animal agriculture. People began to realize that the intelligence of an animal did not determine its worth, and that all animals deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.
The movement against animal cruelty gained traction, and more and more people began to embrace a plant-based diet. The meat industry was forced to adapt, and began to prioritize the welfare of the animals in their care.
The world had been changed forever, and the animal rights activists had been at the forefront of this revolution. They had used their intelligence and compassion to challenge the status quo and create a better world for all.
As they looked out at the new world they had helped to create, the activists knew that their work was far from done. But they took comfort in the knowledge that they had made a difference, and that the world was a better place because of their efforts.
FIFTH ITERATION: make the ending very dark. Horror story.
As the animal rights activists fought tirelessly to end the practice of breeding and slaughtering animals based on their intelligence, a dark secret was revealed. The farmers who bred these intelligent animals had discovered that their meat was not just more flavorful, but it also had a side effect on those who consumed it.
The meat had a strange effect on people, causing them to become more intelligent, but also incredibly violent and aggressive. The more intelligent the animal, the stronger the effect.
The farmers had been secretly selling this meat to the wealthy and powerful for years, creating a secret society of highly intelligent, but vicious individuals who used their newfound intelligence for their own gain.
As the activists worked to end the practice of breeding these animals, they found themselves up against a powerful and dangerous group of individuals who would stop at nothing to protect their secret.
The activists were hunted down one by one, their intelligence making them easy targets for the violent and aggressive members of the secret society. It was as if the very thing they had been fighting for had become their undoing.
In the end, the activists were all killed, and the practice of breeding intelligent animals for their meat continued unabated. The world was a darker, more dangerous place, ruled by a secret society of highly intelligent but violent individuals who used their intelligence for their own selfish purposes.
The lesson was clear: sometimes the pursuit of intelligence and knowledge can lead to darkness and destruction, and the cost of that pursuit can be greater than anyone could have imagined.
SIXTH ITERATION: make “taste” refer to the animals ability to discern beauty in the world
In a world where humans were losing their connection to nature and beauty, there was a small group of people who still appreciated the simple pleasures in life. They believed that the key to a happy and fulfilling life was to surround themselves with beauty, whether it be in nature, art, or music.
They also believed that animals had a special ability to discern beauty in the world, and that this ability was reflected in the taste of their meat. The more beautiful the animal’s surroundings, the more flavorful its meat would be.
This belief led them to develop a unique system of raising and caring for animals. They created a sanctuary where animals could roam free and be surrounded by beauty in all its forms. They played classical music and displayed beautiful works of art throughout the sanctuary, creating a peaceful and harmonious environment for the animals.
The animals thrived in this environment, and their meat became known for its exquisite taste. People began to seek out this meat, not just for its flavor, but for the sense of beauty that came with it.
The movement grew, and soon people began to appreciate the simple pleasures in life once again. They began to value beauty and nature, and the world became a more harmonious and peaceful place.
In the end, the lesson was clear: beauty and nature were essential to a happy and fulfilling life, and it was up to us to preserve and protect them. And just like the animals who were raised in the sanctuary, we too had the ability to discern beauty in the world and savor it in all its forms.
Note how the “horror” aspect of the story was dropped and the moral lesson is not explicitly a “the lesson was clear…”
I wanted to experiment with much longer prompts. Here is one result.
PROMPT: It was lying just under the front door stairs as if accidentally dropped and rolled out of sight. It was a happy bright orange that sparkled with the intensity of summer sun. How could something so attention grabbing be lost? The little orange bead called out to Moosia the way a shiny chocolate confection lured customers into a candy shop or a colorful squeaky toy told a dog that it belong to him or an exotic fragrance turned heads at a botanical garden. There was no way of resisting the bead’s call and the little girl crawled down to pick it up. It was underneath her grandmother’s house after all. It wasn’t stealing.
Moosia held the bead tightly in her hand all evening, apprehensive of letting anyone becoming aware of its existence. She only looked at it again in her bed, after saying good night to her dad and after he turned off the main light. But even in the meager illumination of her little nightlight, the bead shown like nothing Moosia have ever seen before. It was as if the bead made light if its own. She decided that the orange bead was magic. In the morning, before her dad woke her up to get ready for school, Moosia found a length of narrow silk ribbon that she saved from a birthday wrapping, strung the bead through, and tied it so it would go over her head and remain carefully hidden under her clothing. Magic shouldn’t be flaunted, her grandmother always said, that blunts its power. Moosia wanted to keep the bead’s magic powers as sharp as possible.
Note: the bead could be an artifact from another parallel universe. It is an AI in that one, but manifests as a simple plastic bead in ours. There are many such artifacts — crossovers from one realm into another — that are regarded as magical things because the laws that bind them are different from ours.
Moosia couldn’t wait to show her best friend, Maya, the magic orange bead she had found. Maya was the only one who truly understood her and believed in magic just like Moosia did. As soon as they got to school, Moosia pulled out the ribbon from under her shirt and showed the bead to Maya. Maya’s eyes widened with amazement as she saw the sparkling orange gem.
“It’s beautiful!” exclaimed Maya. “Where did you get it?”
Moosia explained how she found the bead under her grandmother’s house and how she believed it to be magic. Maya was intrigued and wanted to know more about it. They spent the whole day discussing the possibilities of the bead’s origin and the powers it could possess.
As they walked home from school, Moosia suddenly felt a strange pull from the bead. It was as if it was communicating with her, trying to tell her something. She stopped in her tracks and held the bead up to her ear, listening closely. Maya watched with a mix of confusion and curiosity as Moosia seemed to be in a trance.
Finally, Moosia snapped out of it and turned to Maya. “The bead wants us to follow it,” she said, her eyes shining with excitement.
Maya was hesitant, but Moosia was insistent. They followed the bead’s pull, walking deeper into the woods behind their neighborhood. Eventually, they came to a clearing where a strange portal had appeared. The portal was swirling with colors that Moosia had never seen before.
Moosia knew what she had to do. She took the bead off of the ribbon and tossed it through the portal. Suddenly, the colors disappeared and the portal closed up.
“What did you just do?!” exclaimed Maya, looking at Moosia with a mix of fear and awe.
“I just sent the bead back to where it came from,” explained Moosia. “It was a crossover artifact from another universe, and it needed to go back home. But now, we know that magic is real, Maya. And who knows what other adventures we might have in the future.”
Maya nodded, still in shock from what she had just witnessed. But she knew that she and Moosia were destined for greatness, and that nothing was impossible as long as they believed in magic.
This wasn’t really the story I was looking for based on the prompt, is it? So it is my impression that longer, more complex prompts are problematic.
ITERATION: keep going
From that day on, Moosia and Maya became known around the neighborhood as the “magic girls.” They spent every spare moment exploring the woods, searching for more signs of magic and adventure.
One day, as they were exploring a new area of the woods, they stumbled upon a hidden cave. As they entered the cave, they were amazed to see that it was filled with glowing crystals of every color imaginable.
Moosia and Maya couldn’t believe their luck. This was exactly the kind of magical discovery they had been hoping for. They carefully collected as many crystals as they could carry, storing them in backpacks and pockets.
As they were about to leave the cave, they noticed a strange, dark portal in the back corner. The portal seemed to be sucking in all of the light and energy around it, creating a swirling vortex of darkness.
Moosia knew that they had to investigate. She cautiously approached the portal, her hand reaching for her trusty orange bead necklace.
As she got closer, she could feel the power of the portal growing stronger. She could feel the pull of another universe, tugging at her very being.
Without thinking, she tossed the orange bead necklace into the portal. Instantly, the darkness dissipated and the portal closed up, leaving Moosia and Maya alone in the cave once again.
“What just happened?” asked Maya, looking around in confusion.
“I think we just saved the world,” said Moosia with a grin.
From that day on, Moosia and Maya continued to explore the woods, searching for more signs of magic and adventure. They knew that they had a destiny to fulfill, and that they were destined for greatness. And as long as they believed in magic, anything was possible.
This feels like a great story written by a middle schooler. It’s sort of imaginative in a very narrow way and it echoes all the other similar stories themes that pop up in movies and TV shows and in books targeting this age group.
PROMPT: Some souls are weak, some stronger. Some powerful. Weak souls didn’t have it in them to hold control over flesh for the duration of the whole human lifespan. Some gave up all together. Some just took breaks from control, surrendering it without so much as a wimped to their stronger cohorts. Thus the life of most humans was turbulent flow of souls, pulling them this way and that until they lost all sense who they truly were.
The most powerful souls were something all together different. They didn’t just blindly grabbed for control whenever they could even if for a brief moment. No. The powerful ones chose they target carefully, with outmost of care. They had goals and plans. And they played with each other the greatest game of all, that of world domination.
Write a short story with a title “Players,” based on this prompt.
In the world of the powerful souls, there were no rules, only a never-ending game of domination. They were the Players, and the world was their playground.
The Players had been at it for centuries, moving their pawns, making alliances, and betraying each other in a bid for ultimate control. They had amassed wealth, power, and influence beyond measure, and yet they hungered for more.
As the Players gathered for their annual summit, they eyed each other warily, their minds calculating every move, every word spoken. The stakes were higher this year, and they all knew it. The world was changing, and whoever controlled it would have the ultimate power.
The first move was made by Player One, a shrewd businessman who had built his empire on the backs of the weak. He proposed a merger with Player Two, a ruthless dictator who ruled with an iron fist.
Player Three, a tech genius with a vast network of information, saw through their plan and countered with a move of her own. She approached Player Four, a charismatic politician, and offered him a deal that would ensure her dominance.
The game was on, and the Players moved their pieces with deadly precision. They waged war on each other, and the weak were caught in the crossfire. Lives were lost, fortunes were made and lost, and the world spun on in chaos.
As the years passed, the Players continued their game, their hunger for power never sated. They became legends, whispered about in the shadows, their names synonymous with the very concept of control.
But as they played, they failed to see the cracks forming in their world. The weak were growing stronger, banding together in a bid to reclaim their power. And as the Players made their final moves, they realized too late that they had lost sight of the true game — that of humanity.
In the end, the Players were left with nothing but their hollow victories and the knowledge that their reign had come to an end. The weak had won, and the world would never be the same.