From Google to ChatGPT: Are we Really Any Better Informed?
I recall a seminal moment when I first recognized that the Internet had real value. It was 1995 and I received a multiple choice scratch off trivia card on a visit to McDonald’s. The trivia question was “How tall was the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland?”. Correct answers won a free medium size order of fries. Back in 1995 we were accustomed to just not knowing facts that we can easily look up today. After all, Google wasn’t around then. But other search engines were starting to emerge. So I used Yahoo! to find an HTML version of “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”, searched the book in a text editor, and found this from chapter 5:
“Are you content now?” said the Caterpillar.
“Well, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t
mind,” said Alice: “three inches is such a wretched height to be.”
“It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).
Voila! The caterpillar was 3 inches tall. Free fries for me! I knew then that this new-fangled Internet thing had tangible value!
Fast-forward 28 years to 2023 and we are on the precipice of a new technology that also promises to profoundly change our world. ChatGPT is an AI-based App that formulates well-organized plain language responses to questions. It’s the first of what is sure to be many commercially available applications that use advanced learning techniques to appear human in both its “thinking” and communication.
Now, I can simply ask ChatGPT 4.0: “How tall was the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland?”
So I did.
ChatGPT immediately replied with a well-formulated, grammatically-correct answer with just the right amount of context.
Except that its answer was wrong!
Here is the ChatGPT answer I received:
In “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, the height of the caterpillar is not explicitly mentioned.
I asked ChatGPT a more leading question, and it doubled down on its previous response. Here is that exchange:
ME: I recall that the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland is 3 inches tall. Can you confirm this?
ChatGPT: I’m sorry, but the exact height of the caterpillar in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is not mentioned in the book. While the story provides detailed descriptions of the characters, their physical dimensions are not specified.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not bashing ChatGPT any more than I would suggest the Internet is just a passing fad. The technologies behind ChatGPT will continue to improve and profoundly impact our world. Like any other advancement, these technologies can and will be used for both good and evil purposes. It will be critical for those in power to place the proper constraints around their development to harness their benefits while limiting their destructive potential.
But, I found my experience profound for another reason. These two episodes separated by 28 years illustrate another truth: Despite the ease in which we can obtain information, or more precisely BECAUSE of the ease in which we can obtain information, we are no more knowledgeable than we have ever been; we’re just more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation.
Stay vigilant, my friends. Discernment has never been more important.