From the Desk of Jay Rainey – January 6, 2023

The following letter is adapted from remarks delivered at the Upper School assembly in Brauer Auditorium on Friday, January 6.

Considered through a particular lens, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale about the perils of plagiarism. On its opening page, in fact, the narrator observes that “the intimate revelations of young men…are usually plagiaristic,” a claim that anticipates the “intimate revelations” three chapters later offered by the young man at the book’s center. “I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe,” Jay Gatsby declares, as though he were a dime novel hero, “collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little.” His listener can barely restrain his laughter. “The very phrases were worn so threadbare,” the narrator recalls, “that they evoked no image except that of a turbaned ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore.” An overachieving plagiarist, Gatsby did not merely try to pass off unoriginal work as his own; he tried to pass off an unoriginal life as his own.

OpenAI’s ChatGPT technology, a conversational artificial intelligence released at the end of November, has brought Gatsby to mind for me lately. ChatGPT is a large language model program, which means that it assigns probabilities to word sequences—the likelihood that the word “detection” will follow the word “signal,” for example—on the basis of their frequency among the hundreds of billions of words on which it is trained. (The GPT-3 technology has the capacity to digest 570GB of text, or the equivalent of over 178,000 copies of War and Peace.) ChatGPT also takes advantage of Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF) technology, which adapts its linguistic output to human expectations—to the human ear. It is a remarkably impressive application.

Over eight years ago, Elon Musk, who would become a founding investor in OpenAI, tweeted that our species might prove to be “just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence.” How we define “intelligence” is essential to the credibility of this prediction. The current CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, for his part tweeted in early December that he is no more than “a stochastic parrot”—a mimic devoid of originality—“and so are u.” As the writer David Golumbia observed a few days later, Altman’s declaration “​​is an incredible rebuke to everyone who thinks that human creativity and even human life are valuable and important things.” I share Golumbia’s opinion that Altman is wrong, that human intelligence is fundamentally distinct from artificial intelligence, and that we, like Jay Gatsby, risk our lives when we aspire merely to be excellent parrots. Earlier this week, I asked ChatGPT to write a short original poem. The response was immediate but hardly original: “A single snowflake falls from the sky, / A delicate and fleeting thing. / It dances on the winter breeze, / Before it melts and disappears.” This is a poem in the same way that emoji are faces. I recalled Gatsby’s hackneyed backstory. “The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image.”

“The great social calamity of our time,” David Bromwich wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2015, “is that people are being replaced by machines. But we may want to stop or slow the process when we have a chance, in order to ask a large question. To what extent are the uniquely human elements of our lives, things not reproducible by mechanical or technical substitutes, the result of spontaneous or unplanned experience?” In returning to Bromwich’s essay this week, I was reminded how much I love that word “spontaneous,” so I said to ChatGPT, “Be spontaneous.” It replied, “I’m sorry, but as a language model, I am not capable of being spontaneous. I am programmed to generate responses based on the data that I have been trained on. Is there something else I can help you with?” Well, not with poetry.

The difference between “data I have been trained on” and “things I have learned” is the difference between a stochastic parrot and a human being. You are not at MICDS to be trained, you are at MICDS to learn, and reading and writing are learning. ChatGPT neither reads nor writes. It scans, and it plagiarizes. I am tempted to qualify, oxymoronically, that it “plagiarizes honestly,” but a machine is not capable of honesty or dishonesty. ChatGPT has wonderful uses (ask it to recommend five things to do in Des Moines, or to draft a condo association meeting agenda), but it cannot write any more than a parrot can speak. It is not a human being.

Perhaps my favorite poem about the difficult work of learning and of parenting—and by extension the work of teaching—is The Writer by Richard Wilbur, published in 1969:

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Respecting our Mission at MICDS, ChatGPT is simply the most recent instance in a series of technologies—CliffsNotes and SparkNotes, the calculator, spell check, Wikipedia, Google Translate, Grammarly, Photomath, and others—that both assist and challenge the work of teaching and learning. With each arrival, we must simultaneously revise our expectations and increase our trust in the young people we serve. The cultivation of their intelligence, integrity, and humanity is ultimately their story to write. We must wish what we wished them before, but harder.

Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Happy new year, and best wishes for a joyful weekend with your loved ones.

Jay Rainey
Head of School