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What’s the Best Metaphor for ChatGPT?
We can do better than calling generative A.I. a "tour guide" or a "fountain of knowledge."
In his book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff argued that “New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities.”
Take the metaphor: Argument is War. We are likely to say things such as, “I won that argument” or “I attacked every weak point in their argument.” The metaphor shapes not only our language but also our thinking about the concept—for better or worse.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about what metaphors have been proposed for generative A.I. and whether they do more harm than good. Here are my brief notes so far.
Artificial Intelligence is Alien Intelligence
The popular historian Yuval Harari made a comparison on Lex Fridman’s podcast that resonated with me. He described A.I. as “alien intelligence” because it solves problems using complex algorithms and can process data much faster than the human brain.
The alien metaphor captures the way that A.I. thinking may not align with human interests. A classic example is the “paperclip maximizer” problem: an A.I. is programmed to optimize paperclip production, so it decides to wipe out humans and transform the entire planet into a paperclip factory—a frighteningly narrow-minded and cruel outcome.
What’s troublesome about the alien metaphor is that it shifts responsibility over to the weird, extraterrestrial A.I. Aren’t we the ones who taught the system in the first place? Training it with flawed data?
We should not characterize potentially dangerous A.I. as an alien invasion when teh monster is our own making.
ChatGPT is a College Student
Professors are understandably concerned about students who are using ChatGPT to complete assignments. A.I. generated essay are vague, lacking analytical rigor, even though they are extremely polite.
But it’s striking to me how the chatbot’s output often reads as if there’s a student on the other side, cheerfully responding to the request but not thinking too deeply about the question. To illustrate this point, here are some excerpts from an essay ChatGPT provided when I asked it to describe itself using conceptual metaphors.
Just like a tour guide, ChatGPT takes us on a seamless journey through the complexities of language and knowledge.
In the digital age, ChatGPT has become a versatile tool akin to a mental Swiss Army Knife.
ChatGPT acts as a never-ending fountain of knowledge, continuously pouring forth information and understanding.
Not only are the metaphors cliché, they are very weak. Nothing creates a strong mental association for what GPT is really like. For instance, couldn’t Google just as easily be described as a tour guide?
ChatGPT’s self-reflection essay doesn’t read as particularly deep or motivated by intrinsic curiosity. Instead, one has the sense that the A.I. wrote it simply to check the box and complete the assignment—like most college students.
I’d love to hear what metaphors you think are best to describe ChatGPT down in the comments.
Until next time . . .
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