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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

When it comes to language, our brains are still better than the bots

A new product in the artificial intelligence world is blurring the lines between human creation and what a computer can do. But WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, says the difference is still clear.

I was having a busy week, so I got the idea to have the bot called ChatGPT write my commentary for me. I couldn’t get into the site. It turns out ChatGPT was even busier than I was.

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If you haven’t heard, ChatGPT is the newest and most powerful version of artificial intelligence when it comes to language. It can compose poetry and song lyrics, it can write jokes and computer code, it can answer complex questions and even write an essay’s worth of answers. That last one is causing dread among educators at the same time it’s bringing joy to students. How will a teacher be able to tell if a student wrote a term paper himself, or outsourced it to a bot?

There’s one short answer to that particular question: Make students do their writing in class. At Harvard, a lot of final exams are open-book—you can look up any facts you want. But you have to create some new ideas from those facts, and you have to do it right there and then. Now that’s a test.


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It also gets at the nature of what creativity means. What’s scary about the AI bots is how good they are at reflecting our own knowledge back to us. Even the best chess players are helpless against a top-of-the-line chess bot because of the processing speed. The program can go through all the possible moves so much faster and more efficiently than any human can.

It's easy to see how AI could make the leap into the creative arts. If you plugged the no. 1 pop hits from the past 25 years into a program, that program could probably write a hit song. I won’t be surprised if there’s a bestselling novel sometime in the next five years that turns out to be written by a machine. That’s not much different than how James Patterson does it.

But creating an artwork in the style of Picasso is not the same as being Picasso in the first place.

A computer program only knows what we tell it. It doesn’t have any ideas of its own. And that’s the difference. We still don’t understand how the human brain comes up with ideas, what strange alchemy happens in a single mind to come up with the theory of relativity, or the Mona Lisa’s smile, or “Purple Rain.”

We’re going to have to teach differently, learn differently and work differently now that AI can do so much more. But the best bot you can build will never be as imaginative and creative and weird as your normal 5-year-old.

To put it in computing terms: That weirdness is not the bug. It’s the feature.


Tommy Tomlinson’s "On My Mind" column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.