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We need to chat about ChatGPT

When I worked as a hospital doctor, I often had to dictate letters. I was terrible at this: it was far faster for me to type them myself than to dictate, but this wasn’t always possible.

Like most people, the way I express myself when I speak is quite distinct from the way I express myself when I write. Seemingly unlike most people, I found it impossibly challenging to adapt to composing written text through the medium of speech. The two feel like completely unconnected systems: it’s like trying to rub my tummy and pat my head.

Back in February, I felt a little sceptical about how useful people believed ChatGPT to be.:

Much of the overhyped discussion about ChatGPT seems to be confusing this language model for something approaching artificial general intelligence.

This week, I’ve changed my mind: I think I’ve underestimated it. The difference has been the addition of voice chat to the model. The voices are impressively lifelike: they have intonation, they use filler words, they sometimes vocally trip, and all of that adds to the effect.

But more importantly: talking is different from seeing writing on a page. I don’t have the same basic expectation of factual accuracy in speech as in writing: I expect a bit of extemporisation, reference to half-remembered facts, a bit of loose interpretation here and there. In conversation, it’s natural to say “that doesn’t sound quite right” and to dig a little deeper into the background; in writing, it’s normal to expect the black-and-white content to be checked and accurate. In other words, the flaws in ChatGPT’s abilities seem to me to fit more naturally with speech than with writing.

I can well imagine phoning a version of ChatGPT to book a restaurant table and being entirely satisfied with the experience—and perhaps even uncertain as to whether I was talking to a person. Similarly for ordering takeaway. I may be writing this on an empty stomach, but there are all manner of customer service interactions that I could imagine using the voice version of ChatGPT for where the text version may seem a little—well—robotic.

I can also imagine it being useful for things like supported professional reflection. For example, only today, I’ve written a reflection about what I’d learned from a course I’d recently attended and how I’ve applied it in practice, as required by the medical regulator. I actually think that having a somewhat more probing voice chat on the same topic with a version of ChatGPT could stimulate deeper reflection and greater thought than simply writing down my own thoughts.

Essentially: I think I considerably underestimated the tool in February. ChatGPT is still a million miles away from artificial general intelligence, but I can now see much more clearly that large language models may have many more far-reaching applications than I’d been able to see back then. Chatting with ChatGPT has broadened my perspective.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Technology, .

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16th October 2023.

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