Back in August, as I was plodding away on that universal symbol of the futility of modern life, the treadmill, I was simultaneously enriching my brain by listening to a podcast. It was some New York Times columnist prattling about how amazing artificial intelligence has become, specifically ChatGPT. She assigned it the task of writing a column in her style and professed to be gobsmacked at the results.
Perhaps, I thought, I’m drifting behind the power curve on AI. Maybe the newer versions of ChatGPT have improved to the point that rather than sweating out a blog deadline on Sunday night, I could simply push Submit and have a polished piece in 0.78 seconds. As I stumble through the twilight of my career, the potential seemed intriguing if not a sure path to lounging by the pool with a beer instead sweating over a blank page. It being the last few days of AirVenture, I assigned ChatGPT the task of writing a blog on that topic in my style. I think you’ll agree with me that the results, posted here, are amazing.
“As I sauntered through the bustling grounds of AirVenture, the vibrant energy of aviation enthusiasts reverberated through the air like a symphony of piston engines and turbine whirrs. It’s an annual pilgrimage to the sacred mecca of flight, a place where every aviator’s soul finds solace amidst the aeronautical marvels that grace the Wisconsin skies. The smell of Avgas and fresh paint mingled, invoking nostalgia and excitement all at once. Amidst the towering aerobatic displays and rows of meticulously restored vintage aircraft, one couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of awe and inspiration. Here, aviation’s rich tapestry unfolds, as industry pioneers share their wisdom and starry-eyed dreamers dare to sketch the blueprints of tomorrow’s flying machines. AirVenture is more than just a spectacle; it’s a living, breathing embodiment of our collective passion for flight, connecting aviators of all backgrounds and ages in an unspoken fraternity of the skies.”
It’s amazing on two levels. One, that a machine could do this at all and second, that the results could appear to be such a perfect caricature of profoundly, irretrievably execrable writing. This is the sort of copy one editor would email to another with “Can you believe this ^%$#?” in the subject window. And speaking of windows, the copy does provide a glimpse through one in how this level of AI works. ChatGPT is a large language model, meaning it essentially reviews what has been written by others and assembles the bits it finds into a cogent whole.
The words and turns of phrase like “sauntered” or “unspoken fraternity of the skies” are things I wouldn’t write under penalty of death. But because AirVenture is probably the single most over-covered event on the planet, someone, or a lot of someones, wrote those in some context. I suspect ChatGPT found them, figured fair game and regurgitated the mess in under a second. That itself is impressive, but it isn’t thinking. Good writing has to have a point of view and a theme informed by a discernible style. ChatGPT knows, vaguely at least, who I am, but is of yet too shallow to plumb the depths of my abysmal darkness. Maybe give it a year or two.
Meanwhile, in other AI news, we are informed that this technology will soon have a major impact on aviation at all levels. No less than American Airlines thinks it will eventually be worth 2 percent of revenue, which for that company is a billion dollars’ worth of productivity. They paired up with Google in a test program to find routes that reduce contrails, which are implicated in climate warming. It hasn’t been deployed yet, but might soon be.
Alaska Airlines is using AI for finding fuel-saving routes and Southwest is applying the technology to its maintenance network. I wonder—and here is something ChatGPT would never have the cheek to say—if it would have been smart enough to advise Southwest managers that its pilots were right about how badly the crew scheduling app sucked. That alone would have saved millions when the airline went off a cliff last December.
Speaking of savings, AI ought to be able to vastly improve the quality of the chatbots that frustrate all of us when we’re seeking customer service. Again, the airlines found their systems woefully under-equipped to handle the breakdowns they experienced last year and early this year. Just having a system that can respond to customers without a two-hour wait on hold would probably reduce the mass customer exodus to just a mild stampede. (I flew Southwest last week, by the way, after having sworn them off. Seems like they got their mojo back.)
The defense budget of every nation, but especially the U.S., is investing heavily in AI-enhanced weapons system. We’ve reported on the XQ-58A Valkyrie pilotless battle drone that seems to get a mention somewhere about every other day. The Air Force eventually wants 1000 of these aircraft, more than twice as many F-15s as it has now and three times as many F-35s. It’s quite likely they’ll never get that many because the follow-on we know is already in the pipeline will surely stunt the program.
I can’t help but wonder what impact all of this is going to have on students coming out of the major schools headed for the airlines. Will AI-flown airliners confront them by mid-career? My guess is no, but I wouldn’t take a bet on it. If I were a student today, nonetheless, I’d sure have a minor in AI and automation just to make myself more valuable to a potential employer or as a Plan B for the furloughs we delude ourselves into thinking will never happen again.
I asked ChatGPT for a reading on that.
“The situation can change rapidly due to various factors, including new variants of the virus, changes in government regulations, economic fluctuations, or unforeseen events. Airlines will generally make decisions based on the prevailing circumstances and their financial viability.”
Well, do tell. Any writer worthy of the name would have just said, “^%$# if I know.” I also asked Chat GPT if it would ever learn to emulate my style.
“If you’re interested in content written in a style similar to Paul Bertorelli’s, I recommend seeking out his work and publications to get a more authentic and accurate representation of his writing.”
I detect emerging intelligence in that reply, but also a throwing in of the towel. I’ll check back later.