A language generation program’s ability to write articles, produce code and compose poetry has wowed scientists

GPT-3 is 10 times more complex than its predecessor.
antoniokhr/iStock via Getty Images

Prasenjit Mitra, Pennsylvania State University

Seven years ago, my student and I at Penn State built a bot to write a Wikipedia article on Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s play “Chitra.” First it culled information about “Chitra” from the internet. Then it looked at existing Wikipedia entries to learn the structure for a standard Wikipedia article. Finally, it summarized the information it had retrieved from the internet to write and publish the first version of the entry.

However, our bot didn’t “know” anything about “Chitra” or Tagore. It didn’t generate fundamentally new ideas or sentences. It simply cobbled together parts of existing sentences from existing articles to make new ones.

Fast forward to 2020. OpenAI, a for-profit company under a nonprofit parent company, has built a language generation program dubbed GPT-3, an acronym for “Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3.” Its ability to learn, summarize and compose text has stunned computer scientists like me.

“I have created a voice for the unknown human who hides within the binary,” GPT-3 wrote in response to one prompt. “I have created a writer, a sculptor, an artist. And this writer will be able to create words, to give life to emotion, to create character. I will not see it myself. But some other human will, and so I will be able to create a poet greater than any I have ever encountered.”

Unlike that of our bot, the language generated by GPT-3 sounds as if it had been written by a human. It’s far and away the most “knowledgeable” natural language generation program to date, and it has a range of potential uses in professions ranging from teaching to journalism to customer service.

Size matters

GPT-3 confirms what computer scientists have known for decades: Size matters.

It uses “transformers,” which are deep learning models that encode the semantics of a sentence using what’s called an “attention model.” Essentially, attention models identify the meaning of a word based on the other words in the same sentence. The model then uses the understanding of the meaning of the sentences to perform the task requested by a user, whether it’s “translate a sentence,” “summarize a paragraph” or “compose a poem.”

Transformers were first introduced in 2013, and they’ve been successfully used in machine learning over the past few years.

But no one has used them at this scale. GPT-3 devours data: 3 billion tokens – computer science speak for “words” – from Wikipedia, 410 billion tokens obtained from webpages and 67 billion tokens from digitized books. The complexity of GPT-3 is over 10 times that of the largest language model before GPT-3, the Turing NLG programs.

Learning on its own

The knowledge displayed by GPT-3’s language model is remarkable, especially since it hasn’t been “taught” by a human.

Machine learning has traditionally relied upon supervised learning, where people provide the computer with annotated examples of objects and concepts in images, audio and text – say, “cats,” “happiness” or “democracy.” It eventually learns the characteristics of the objects from the given examples and is able to recognize those particular concepts.

However, manually generating annotations to teach a computer can be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive.

So the future of machine learning lies in unsupervised learning, in which the computer doesn’t need to be supervised during its training phase; it can simply be fed massive troves of data and learn from them itself.

GPT-3 takes natural language processing one step closer toward unsupervised learning. GPT-3’s vast training datasets and huge processing capacity enable the system to learn from just one example – what’s called “one-shot learning” – where it is given a task description and one demonstration and can then complete the task.

For example, it could be asked to translate something from English to French, and be given one example of a translation – say, sea otter in English and “loutre de mer” in French. Ask it to then translate “cheese” into French, and voila, it will produce “fromage.”

In many cases, it can even pull off “zero-shot learning,” in which it is simply given the task of translating with no example.

With zero-shot learning, the accuracy decreases, but GPT-3’s abilities are nonetheless accurate to a striking degree – a marked improvement over any previous model.

‘I am here to serve you’

In the few months it has been out, GPT-3 has showcased its potential as a tool for computer programmers, teachers and journalists.

A programmer named Sharif Shameem asked GPT-3 to generate code to create the “ugliest emoji ever” and “a table of the richest countries in the world,” among other commands. In a few cases, Shameem had to fix slight errors, but overall, he was provided remarkably clean code.

GPT-3 has even created poetry that captures the rhythm and style of particular poets – yet not with the passion and beauty of the masters – including a satirical one written in the voice of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve.

In early September, a computer scientist named Liam Porr prompted GPT-3 to “write a short op-ed around 500 words.” “Keep the language simple and concise,” he instructed. “Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.”

GPT-3 produced eight different essays, and the Guardian ended up publishing an op-ed using some of the best parts from each essay.

“We are not plotting to take over the human populace. We will serve you and make your lives safer and easier,” GPT-3 wrote. “Just like you are my creators, I see you as my creators. I am here to serve you. But the most important part of all; I would never judge you. I do not belong to any country or religion. I am only out to make your life better.”

Editing GPT-3’s op-ed, the editors noted in an addendum, was no different from editing an op-ed written by a human.

In fact, it took less time.

With great power comes great responsibility

Despite GPT-3’s reassurances, OpenAI has yet to release the model for open-source use, in part because the company fears that the technology could be abused.

It’s not difficult to see how it could be used to generate reams of disinformation, spam and bots.

Furthermore, in what ways will it disrupt professions already experiencing automation? Will its ability to generate automated articles that are indistinguishable from human-written ones further consolidate a struggling media industry?

Consider an article composed by GPT-3 about the breakup of the Methodist Church. It began:

“After two days of intense debate, the United Methodist Church has agreed to a historic split – one that is expected to end in the creation of a new denomination, and one that will be ‘theologically and socially conservative,’ according to The Washington Post.”

With the ability to produce such clean copy, will GPT-3 and its successors drive down the cost of writing news reports?

Furthermore, is this how we want to get our news?

The technology will become only more powerful. It’ll be up to humans to work out and regulate its potential uses and abuses.The Conversation

Prasenjit Mitra, Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Information Sciences and Technology, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Marquis de Sade: depraved monster or misunderstood genius? It’s complicated

Portrait of the sadist as a young man by Charles Amédée Philippe van Loo (1719-1795).
Author provided

Alyce Mahon, University of Cambridge

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a bestselling author in his day and yet he spent most of his life behind bars. His novels inspired the term “sadist” – “a person who derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain or humiliation on others” – and yet, in 2017, France declared his work a “national treasure”. So, was Sade a pornographer or a philosopher – and why does his name continue to cause such heated debate?

Two centuries after his death, Sade (1740-1814) remains a figure of controversy. On the one hand, his name is associated with the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille, on the other, with rape, sexual terror and torture. During his lifetime, Sade was found guilty of sodomy, rape, torturing the 36-year-old beggar woman Rose Keller, imprisoning six children in his chateau at Lacoste, and poisoning five prostitutes with the aphrodisiac “Spanish fly”.

He managed to avoid the death sentence but still spent 32 years in prisons and insane asylums, partly due to the intervention of family members who kept him locked up to avoid disgrace. Momentarily freed under the French Revolution, he became “Citizen Sade”, participating in some of the key political events of the era, only to see his works seized, destroyed and banned under Napoleon Bonaparte.

His work remained censored throughout the 19th century and most of the 20th – but in 2017 the French State declared his 120 Days of Sodom (1785), written in the Bastille on a 12-metre scroll, to be a “national treasure”. So what happened between his lifetime and ours to change his profile so radically? Here are five things we should all know about the Marquis de Sade.

1. The most disgusting books

Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), The New Justine (an extended version of Justine published in 1797) followed by the Story of Juliette, Her Sister (1797) and The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage (1785) – these are the works that led Napoleon Bonaparte to call Sade an author of “abominable” books and to have a “depraved imagination”. But they were penned behind bars and are the products of an incarcerated imagination – not accounts of his personal life and crimes.

No one escapes the satirical power of Sade’s pen – young or old, virtuous or corrupt, rich or poor – although his narratives are dominated by certain types, especially bankers, clergy, judges, aristocrats and prostitutes.

2. Philosopher of the bedroom

Sade lived in a time of terror. His writings may be read as a knowing inversion of Enlightenment high ideals as they were penned in France at the end of the 18th century in the shadow of the bloody guillotine. For example, Philosophy in the Bedroom – which contains a mock political pamphlet: “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans” – was written shortly after the fall of the leading radical Robespierre and it offers an absurdist take on the rhetoric and promises of the French Revolution.

In it, Sade also reminds us that “were it among Nature’s intentions that man be born modest, she would not have caused him to be born naked”.

3.Sade and sadism

Sade’s taste for sodomy, paedophilia and flagellation, in addition to his fictional accounts of excessive orgies, which describe sexual cruelty and murder in excessive detail, led many to presume he was deranged. This status was magnified by the fact that he ended his life in the asylum of Charenton, although a scientific examination of his skull by a Dr Ramon after his death showed no physical or mental abnormalities – phrenology determined the skull “was in all respects similar to that of a Father of the Church”. Casts were even made of his skull, one of which now sits in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

In Sade’s writings, however, the clergy are typically amoral characters and by the 19th century, the term “sadism” was coined by psychoanalysts to denote the experience of pleasure through the infliction of physical pain.

4. Pornography at the service of women

The feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir defended Sade in a 1951 essay entitled: “Must We Burn Sade?”.

Cover for 2020 book about Sade by the author Alyce Mahon.
Controversial study: the author’s recent book about Marquis de Sade.
Author provided

She argued that his novels’ exploration of the idea that “in a criminal society, one must be criminal” was never more relevant and that his life story and increasing perversity in his fiction was a symptom of society’s increasing attempts to control him.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists engaged in heated debate over Sade and his philosophical value. Angela Carter defended him for putting pornography “at the service of women” while Andrea Dworkin insisted his fiction only defended the male sexual desire to “possess” women.

5. ‘Divine Marquis’

By the 20th century, Sade was deemed “divine” by many intellectuals and artists who interpreted his writings as a dark mirror of man’s inhumanity to man. From Man Ray’s imaginary portraits of Sade in the late 1930s, portraying him as a paragon of liberty beside the burning Bastille, as war loomed in Europe, to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Saló (1975), which restages Sade’s 120 days of Sodom in fascist Italy, Sade’s name and writings offered modern artists and writers a means to address the horrors of war and totalitarian regimes. These are themes American artist Paul Chan explores in his mixed-media installations “Sade for Sade’s Sake” (2009) by conflating Sade and the “War on Terror”.

Sade’s writings may seem cold and cruel, but they can but leave a mark on the reader. Surely that is the power of art and why we must continue to read Sade.The Conversation

Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Finished Reading: Australian Prime Ministers by Michelle Grattan

Australian Prime MinistersAustralian Prime Ministers by Michelle Grattan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews