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Science

Danny’s workmate is called GPT-3. You’ve probably read its work without realising it’s an AI


Two years ago this weekend, GPT-3 was introduced to the world.

You may not have heard of GPT-3, but there’s a good chance you’ve read its work, used a website that runs its code, or even conversed with it through a chatbot or a character in a game.

GPT-3 is an AI model — a type of artificial intelligence — and its applications have quietly trickled into our everyday lives over the past couple of years.

In recent months, that trickle has picked up force: more and more applications are using AI like GPT-3, and these AI programs are producing greater amounts of data, from words, to images, to code.

A lot of the time, this happens in the background; we don’t see what the AI has done, or we can’t tell if it’s any good.

But there are some things that are easy for us to judge: writing is one of those.

From student essays to content marketing, AI writing tools are doing what only a few years ago seemed impossible.

In doing so, the technology is changing how we think about what has been considered a uniquely human activity.

And we have no idea how the AI models are doing it.

Cheaper, faster, more productive

Danny Mahoney’s workmate never leaves, sleeps, or takes a break.

Day after day, the AI writing assistant churns out blog posts, reviews, company descriptions and the like for clients of Andro Media, Mr Mahoney’s digital marketing company in Melbourne.

“Writers are expensive. And there’s a limit to how much quality content a human can produce,” Mr Mahoney says.

“You can get the same quality of content using AI tools. You just get it faster.”

How much faster? About three times, he estimates.

He still has to check and edit the AI-generated text, but it’s less work and he’s cut his rates by half.

We asked GPT-3 to write a limerick for the ABC audience
We asked GPT-3 to write a limerick for the ABC audience. It produced this in less than a second.(ABC Science: James Purtill)

In Perth, Sebastian Marks no longer bothers with content agencies at all.

About a year ago, he saw an ad for an AI writing assistant and signed up.

The AI tool now writes pretty much everything for his company, Moto Dynamics, which sells motorcycles and organises racing events.

Its output includes employee bios, marketing copy, social media posts, and business proposals.

“Once we’d started feeding data into it and teaching it how to work for us, it became more and more user-friendly,” he says.

“Now we use it essentially as an admin.”

Millions of words per minute

The particular AI writing tool Mr Mahoney uses is called ContentBot, which like many of its competitors was launched early last year.

“It was very exciting,” says Nick Duncan, the co-founder of ContentBot, speaking from Johannesburg.

OpenAI's DALL-E 2
Released in April 2022, OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 produces high-res conceptual art from text commands.(Supplied: OpenAI)

The trigger for this explosion was OpenAI’s November 2021 decision to make its GPT-3 AI universally available for developers.

It meant anyone could pay to access the AI tool, which had been introduced in May 2020 for a limited number of clients.

Dozens of AI writing tools launched in early 2021.

LongShot AI is only a year old, but claims to have 12,000 users around the world, including in Australia.

“And there are other products that would have ten-fold the number of clients we have,” says its co-founder, Ankur Pandey, speaking from Mumbai.

Companies like ContentBot and Longshot pay OpenAI for access to GPT-3: the rate of the most popular model (Davinci) is about $US0.06 per 750 words.

In March 2021, GPT-3 was generating an average of 4.5 billion words per day.

We don’t know the current figure, but it would be much higher given the AI is being more widely used.

“It’s been a game changer,” Mr Duncan says.

What about student essays?

There are dozens of AI writing tools that advertise to students.

Among them is Article Forge, a GPT-3 powered tool that claims its essays can pass the plagiarism checkers used by schools and universities.

Demand for the product has increased five-fold in two years, chief executive officer Alex Cardinell says.

“It’s the demand for cheaper content with shorter turnaround times that requires less overall effort to produce.

“People do not want AI, they want what AI can do for their business.”

Lucinda McKnight, a curriculum expert at Deakin University, confirms that students are early adopters of AI writing tools.

Spinners are automated tools that rephrase and rewrite content so it won’t be flagged for plagiarism.

“It can produce in a matter of seconds multiple different copies of the same thing, but worded differently.”

A screenshot of OpenAI's list of prices for using GPT-3
A screenshot of OpenAI’s list of prices for using GPT-3.(Supplied: OpenAI)

These developments are shifting ideas around student authorship. If it becomes impossible to distinguish AI writing from human, what’s the point in trying to detect plagiarism?

“We should be getting students to acknowledge how they’ve used AI as another kind of source for their writing,” Dr McKnight says.

“That is the way to move forwards, rather than to punish students for using them.”

So, can AI write good?

When GPT-3 launched two years ago, word spread of its writing proficiency, but access was limited.

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Recently, OpenAI has thrown open the doors to anyone with a guest login, which takes a few minutes to acquire.

Given the prompt “Write a news story about AI”, the AI tool burped out three paragraphs. Here’s the first:

“The world is on the brink of a new era of intelligence. For the first time in history, artificial intelligence (AI) is about to surpass human intelligence. This momentous event is sure to change the course of history, and it is all thanks to the tireless work of AI researchers.”

In general, GPT-3 is remarkably good at stringing sentences together, though plays fast and loose with the facts.

Asked to write about the 2022 Australian election, it claimed the vote would be held on July 2.

But it still managed to sound like it knew what it was talking about:

“Whoever wins the election, it is sure to be a close and hard-fought contest. With the country facing challenges on many fronts, the next government will have its work cut out for it.”

Mr Duncan says you “can’t just let the AI write whatever it wants to write”.

“It’s terrible at fact-checking. It actually makes up facts.”

He uses the tool as a creative prompt: the slog of writing from scratch is replaced by editing and fact-checking.

“It helps you overcome the blank-page problem.”

Mr Mahoney agrees.

“If you produce content purely by an AI, it’s very obvious that it’s written by one.

“It’s either too wordy or just genuinely doesn’t make sense.”

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But with proper guidance, GPT-3 (and other AI writing tools) can be good enough for standard professional writing tasks like work emails or content marketing, where speed is more important than style.

“People who create content for marketing tend to use it every day,” Longshot’s Ankur Pandey says.

Then there’s coding: In November 2021, a third of the code on GitHub — a hosting platform for code — was being written with Copilot, a GPT-3 powered coding tool that had been launched five months earlier.



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