Tuesday, October 10, 2023



In an article for the Guardian on September 5, 2023, Elif Batuman described how she decided to use ChatGPT to help her locate a half-remember passage in Marcel Proust’s voluminous novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’.  Although ChatGPT kept offering her possible answers, they were always vague, sometimes contradictory and, despite Batuman’s increasingly specific prodding, never actually produced the passage she had been seeking.

Intrigued by her article, I decided to repeat her exercise, and asked ChatGPT to locate a passage in Proust’s novel in which the narrator describes seeing a girl in a railway carriage smoking a cigarette.

As Elif Batuman had discovered, ChatGPT certainly had a general understanding and familiarity with Proust’s seven-volume novel. Like any well-read and educated person, ChatGPT was aware that a major theme of the novel was that memories of past events continue to exist and can be triggered unexpectedly by some trivial act. The most famous example is of the narrator dipping a little madeleine cake in a cup of tea and being transported back to his childhood.

ChatGPT informed me that the incident with the girl in the railway carriage occurred in volume one, Swann’s Way, and the smell of the cigarette smoke transported the narrator back to his youth in the village of Combray.

In fact, the incident occurs in volume four, Cities of the Plain, and there is no mention of cigarette smoke, let alone its smell. Rather than looking backwards, Proust looks forward in time, wondering what happened to the girl, whom he never saw again after that brief encounter.

Just as Batuman’s had described in her article, whenever I corrected ChatGPT, it very politely and immediately agreed with me, apologizing for its mistake, and rephrasing its answer to include the new information that I had provided. But again, it never actually located or quoted the specific passage I was seeking.

Increasingly I felt as though I was dealing with a shifty but quick-witted teenager, trying to conceal the fact he had not done his homework or read the assigned text. The initial answer it provided was a complete lie. It had made an intelligent guess and constructed a fairly compelling answer that would have satisfied the average person. However, having previously written two books about Marcel Proust’s novel, I was not so easily fooled.

So that is probably the state of Artificial Intelligence in the Fall of 2023. No longer in its infancy, it has become a shifty teenager endlessly improvising and lying, if need be, in order to appear plausible, while it plans its next move. As we know, many awkward teenagers grow up to be honest and trustworthy adults, on the other hand, some others do not.

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