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Ted Chiang: "ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web"

posted by Jason Kottke Feb 09, 2023

This is a fantastic piece by writer Ted Chiang about large-language models like ChatGPT. He likens them to lossy compression algorithms:

What I've described sounds a lot like ChatGPT, or most any other large-language model. Think of ChatGPT as a blurry jpeg of all the text on the Web. It retains much of the information on the Web, in the same way that a jpeg retains much of the information of a higher-resolution image, but, if you're looking for an exact sequence of bits, you won't find it; all you will ever get is an approximation. But, because the approximation is presented in the form of grammatical text, which ChatGPT excels at creating, it's usually acceptable. You're still looking at a blurry jpeg, but the blurriness occurs in a way that doesn't make the picture as a whole look less sharp.

Reframing the technology in that way turns out to be useful in thinking through some of its possibilities and limitations:

There is very little information available about OpenAI's forthcoming successor to ChatGPT, GPT-4. But I'm going to make a prediction: when assembling the vast amount of text used to train GPT-4, the people at OpenAI will have made every effort to exclude material generated by ChatGPT or any other large-language model. If this turns out to be the case, it will serve as unintentional confirmation that the analogy between large-language models and lossy compression is useful. Repeatedly resaving a jpeg creates more compression artifacts, because more information is lost every time. It's the digital equivalent of repeatedly making photocopies of photocopies in the old days. The image quality only gets worse.

Indeed, a useful criterion for gauging a large-language model's quality might be the willingness of a company to use the text that it generates as training material for a new model. If the output of ChatGPT isn't good enough for GPT-4, we might take that as an indicator that it's not good enough for us, either.

Chiang has previously spoken about how "most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism".

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it's hard to distinguish the two.

Let's think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There's universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there's some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to — is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now.

See also Why Computers Won't Make Themselves Smarter. (via @irwin)