December 26, 2022
Playing with AI
I ’ve been playing around with ChatGPT over the last couple of days. Since this has been in the news quite a bit and some of the demonstrations on YouTube are pretty impressive, I wanted to try it out. Randomly, I chose to ask it about an essay/short story my students read in ENGL 1101 last semester: George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” First, I asked it to summarize the text:
"Shooting an Elephant" is a short story by George Orwell that was first published in 1936. The story is set in Burma, where Orwell was stationed as a British imperial police officer in the 1920s.
The story is narrated by the police officer, who is called upon to deal with a rogue elephant that has been causing destruction in the town. The officer initially tries to avoid shooting the elephant, as he is aware that the decision to kill the elephant will be unpopular with the local Burmese population. However, he ultimately decides to shoot the elephant in order to save face and maintain his authority as a representative of the British Empire.
Throughout the story, the narrator reflects on the oppressive nature of colonial rule and the psychological toll it takes on those who enforce it. The story ends with the narrator acknowledging the futility of his actions and the inherent cruelty of imperialism. "Shooting an Elephant" is a powerful critique of colonialism and the consequences of power and authority.
Wow, that’s pretty good. It even gets into a bit of analysis. Next, I asked how the themes of “Shooting” might relate to America today. It returned:
"Shooting an Elephant" can be seen as a commentary on the ways in which power and authority can be abused and used to oppress others. In the story, the narrator is a representative of the British Empire, and his decision to shoot the elephant is motivated in part by his desire to maintain his authority and save face in front of the local Burmese population. This can be seen as a metaphor for the way in which those in positions of power may act in self-serving ways, even if it means causing harm to others.
This theme of abuse of power and authority is still relevant today, and can be seen in a range of contexts, including in the United States. For example, issues of police brutality and systemic racism within law enforcement have been widely debated in recent years, highlighting the ways in which those in positions of power can abuse their authority and cause harm to marginalized communities.
Overall, "Shooting an Elephant" can be seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and the need for accountability and responsible decision-making in positions of authority.
Again, pretty impressive. This last question was similar to one of the exam questions I asked and that many chose to answer:
In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell states, “I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. . . . He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it” (6). Explain what Orwell means in the context of the essay, how it might relate to America in 2022, and how this idea impacts your own life or experience.
OK, so I fed ChatGPT that exact prompt. Here’s the response:
In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell is using the metaphor of the white man turning tyrant to describe the way in which those in positions of power can become oppressive and abusive. In the story, the narrator is a British imperial police officer in Burma, and his decision to shoot the elephant is motivated in part by a desire to maintain his authority and save face in front of the local Burmese population. In doing so, however, he realizes that he is also sacrificing his own freedom and autonomy, as he is acting in a way that is dictated by the expectations and demands of his position of power rather than his own values and beliefs.
This idea can be related to America in 2022 in a number of ways. For example, issues of police brutality and systemic racism within law enforcement can be seen as examples of those in positions of power acting in abusive and oppressive ways, and sacrificing their own freedom and autonomy in the process. Similarly, the current political climate in the United States is characterized by a high level of polarization and division, with many individuals and groups feeling that their freedom and autonomy are being threatened by those in power.
In terms of how this idea impacts my own life or experience, I think it is important to be aware of the ways in which power and authority can be abused and to strive to act in a responsible and accountable manner. This means being mindful of the impact of my actions on others and being open to listening to and considering different perspectives and viewpoints. It also means recognizing and challenging instances of abuse of power or oppression when I encounter them, and working towards creating a more just and equitable society.
Holy shit. Yes, it’s pretty vague, especially the third paragraph, but damn, it’s a firm foundation for constructing a more detailed and specific essay. Not only that, it’s clearly written, so that’s a dead giveaway that one of my freshmen didn’t write it. I’m not being catty here, but suggesting ways in which I can tell this is AI-generated. Being totally free of typos and awkward constructions would lead me to think this potential plagiarism. Would it be? Certainly it’s cheating or disingenuous. I had my students hand-write in-class, so they could not have cheated in this way, but certainly in preparing for an exam or doing out-of-class drafts, ChatGTP could be an excellent learning tool. I bet it would work even better on some of the questions I ask for my World Literature survey.
I pushed it a bit more by asking it to expand its last response “to a 1000-word essay and include more specifics.” While it didn’t quite make it to 1000 words—for some reason cutting off mid-sentence at about 650—what it produced was impressive. Most remarkably, ChatGPT added a specific references to BLM, political polarization, and cancel culture—exactly what I was trying to emphasize in our classroom discussion. Again, wow.
Of course, this gets me to thinking how I can use ChatGPT to streamline my own work. So, I asked it to write a course description for my brand new class, Topics in World Literature. I’d already decided to narrow my “topic” to “20th-century short stories” to mitigate the work of having four distinct preps. Short stories are engaging without being too time-consuming. I liked what it gave me, so I used it. I might try to write my whole syllabus this way. It did not do so well when asked to produce a sample reading list of stories not originally written in English. Still, I am impressed.
This is scary fun. I wonder: when does Siri get this upgrade?