Checking In On AI


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.

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  1. Thanks to AI technology, I am enjoying the process of learning and enhancing my ability to express myself in writing. My mother, who was an English school teacher, used to say, “You can’t speak English, you can’t speak Spanish, you are becoming mute,” expressing concern about my language skills. However, with the assistance of cognitive computing, I am now capable of learning and effectively conveying my thoughts, and even using emojis to add a touch of emotion. 😊

    • The AI version of Bertorelli has sentences all about the same length. My impression is of someone who doesn’t know when to stop or put down the thesaurus. Too much sugar.
      I edit whatever I hear and everything I read, can’t help it. Except ATC. Does AI edit what it writes? I wait a day or two and polish. Paul, your product is always a joy to read.

  2. In this morning’s AVWEB email, I saw a story beginning “Back in August, as I was plodding away on that universal symbol of the futility of modern life, the treadmill…” and I thought – oh good, a story from Paul Bertorelli. His style is unmistakeable AI has a long way to go to replace him, if ever it could.

  3. Having (1) been the US early adopter of Thielert diesels; and (2) run an airport deep within the DCA FRZ circle of doom, I am tempted to ask ChatGPT to come up with something on one of those experiences. There’s plenty of material on both – no small amount of which wound up here and in your sister publications.

    Given that my language skills were honed by 20+ years in auto salvage (I have a PhD in profanity with a minor in inappropriate societal conduct – or maybe the other way around) and then further enhanced in the post-9/11 world, that should be fun.

    Spot-on, Paul…nice work. As always.

  4. I was sitting in the FBO pilot lounge of my airport with a pilot buddy yesterday enjoying a cup of coffee. Both of us HAD been watching the Green Bay Packers at home but gave up on the game after the first half’s dismal performance by ‘our team’ — the Packers. Separately, each of us decided to go to the airport. I looked up at the clock and saw it was about 3:15. Thinking the game should be over and remembering that the manager had placed some sort of Alexa box in the foyer, I yelled to it, “Alexa, what was the Packer’s score?” When it said something I didn’t quite hear, I walked up to it and asked it again. It said, “The Packer’s are currently ahead.” Shocked, I then I told it to turn on the TV to the game to see the last minutes of the game and watch the Packer’s win … basically by default. We looked at each other and commented, “What would our grandparents say or think watching Alexa “perform?” I’m old enough to remember watching Howdy Doody on a 5″ round Hallicrafter’s TV set.

    Yea … it’s a brave new world out there. I’ll still take steam gauges, however. I don’t need no stinkin’ “AI” in the cockpit.

    • Forgot …
      “As I stumble through the twilight of my career …”
      PLEASE don’t go away, Mr. PB !! You’d disappoint thousands … world wide.
      We’ll buy you beer.

    • Yeah, but by next year I expect ForeFlight to have a feature that will plan the route from A to B most likely to “cleared as filed”. I imagine that will be pretty popular. In the Pro Plus edition only of course. 🙁

  5. I don’t know, Paul… as I read the AI-generated paragraph, I was thinking that surely you had written it, and thinking that you had done a masterful job of writing something that sounded like a slightly puffed-up version of something you would have written. My point being… sorry… that the AI-generated paragraph wasn’t THAT far off. Too flowery, for sure. Totally lacking in cynicism and wit, of course. But there was some similarity. And maybe that was your point – “close” doesn’t count when it comes to great writing, so please keep doing that (the great writing).

    • Oy vey! Was totally lacking the objective and wise crackery use of words that is the defining feature of Paul’s thinking. Re-read it and note that has been replaced by generic overly flowery stuff that reminds me of a 17th century French dandy festooned with makeup!

    • In the end though, that paragraph didn’t really say anything. Paul always has something to say, and ChatGPT frequently uses a lot of words to shrug its electronic shoulders.

  6. Thanks, Paul. Sometimes it’s amazing to see people exercising too-little skepticism about the purportedly great benefits served up by their devices.

    Looking forward to Google’s contrail/chemtrail-reducing results and AA doing what they’re told – “Flight ___, leave the airport via Gate___, take the Airport Spur onramp, get er/em/ir on the zipway, and continue on I-35 to the destination.”

  7. “As I sauntered through the bustling grounds of AirVenture…”. Yeah, evident in the first phrase. The thing about good writing is that it reflects introspection, self criticism, and usually humility, among other things equally difficult to scrape from the web. These are qualities that aren’t in AI, yet. I’m thankful we still have our Pauls.

  8. “I detect emerging intelligence in that reply, but also a throwing in of the towel. I’ll check back later.”

    Paul, if you’re truly “in the twilight of your career”, in saying you’ll “check back later”, you might as well wait to check back till the midnight of your career.

  9. Working at my real job ™ for a company who’s 1) late to the mindshare game after proving its chops on a nationwide TV game show over a decade ago, an 2) chasing after gaining relevance in the market of AI with the intensity of a kitten chasing a laser dot on the floor, the latest and greatest ‘shiny object’ is fraught with not only being able to generate turgid prose (sorry, Paul, that paragraph sounds like GPT swallowed a thesaurus AND OED), but, in many cases does it without guardrails or integrity checks, depending on us carbon life forms to sort through the responses.

    AI has a lot of potential. AI also has the potential for evil, since you can’t ‘program’ in morality or integrity. It IS still silicon 1s and 0s. While we can’t stop progress…we can be aware of its gaps. Technology is morally neutral; most technologists or developers I’ve ever dealt with in 40+ years of work in the iT sector have never answered the question “Just because we can do something, should we?” in the negative.

    HAL 9000 was a warning, not a blueprint. We should be paying attention.

    • Actually, morality is just as programmable as any other sort of decision-making factor. The problem is, in the decision-making processes of each of us carbon life-forms it functions as a squishy biasing concept whose effect on our “output” depends on the relative importance we personally give (at the moment) to the facts & factors we apply it against. When incorporated into an AI’s algorithms it will have the same effect, and with computers, uncertainty is generally what we are trying to banish.

      I think AI will first be most useful and become more quickly trusted if we apply it to specialized functions that have a manageable range of acceptable outputs and can also be “trained” on more specialized and curated data models having less stuff of questionable veracity such as is woven through the immensely large language models needed by, for example, ChatGPT. To flip the saying, gods aren’t created in a day.

    • Even if morality and integrity were programmable, morality and integrity would now need to be redefined by society. We crossed that line nearly a decade ago.

    • Yep… great post, Bryan!

      All I can hear in my mind is:

      “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”
      “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

      OK, I’m old…

  10. This column, though funny and entertaining, brings to mind Dan Fogelberg’s song “Leader of the Band”–the signature line was “my life was just a poor attempt to imitate the man.” Artificial intelligence might imitate, but even if perfect, can’t surpass the real thing.

    There IS only one original Paul Bertorelli–and any attempt by man or machine to imitate his wit, style, powers of observation, and communication skills might come close to matching his own–but can never surpass. (the old adage “You can’t AVERAGE UP!”)

    Don’t worry about imitators, Paul–there can be only ONE “ORIGINAL!”

  11. “ AI has a lot of potential. AI also has the potential for evil, since you can’t ‘program’ in morality or integrity. It IS still silicon 1s and 0s. While we can’t stop progress…we can be aware of its gaps. Technology is morally neutral; most technologists or developers I’ve ever dealt with in 40+ years of work in the iT sector have never answered the question “Just because we can do something, should we?” in the negative.”

    Well said Byron…while the technology is morally neutral, specifically with AI, it ceases immediately to be morally neutral when asked to be engaged and/or used as it uses, then assembles, the collective morality of all the 0’s and 1’s entered by humanity…which as far from morally neutral. The cool thing in Paul’s brilliant blog above including all his previous brilliant work is AI has to figure out his clear lack of neutral morality, choice of verbiage, including verbiage and character introduced by such notables as Bax, the other PB at Avweb, Gann, might as well throw in a smattering of Hemingway too, into this AI stew of collective info… and attempt to reasonably duplicate the great pontification of Paul using Bertorelliism with all of the above. I don’t think any AI present or future has that capability! So, that begs Byron’s question…just because we THINK we can, should we? Inquiring minds would like to know! 😉

  12. Paul, one of my favorite articles is the one about you flying our Mooney into the remnants of a large storm. You described how pleased you were with the 200 knot ground speed until you were looking at the ceiling with your snacks plastered there as well (I’m paraphrasing). No AI could write a story like that. In fact, I would love to read it again. Maybe there should be a “Best of Paul Bertorelli” column in AVweb…

  13. Life is a Bertorelliism.

    In August, on that endless treadmill of modern life,
    I tuned into a podcast to escape the treadmill’s strife.
    A New York Times columnist raved with glee,
    About ChatGPT’s prowess in AI’s decree.

    She tasked it to write, to mimic her own style,
    And marveled at the results, all the while.
    I pondered, perhaps AI has advanced,
    To replace my Sunday night writing stance.

    As my career’s twilight approaches near,
    The idea intrigued me, replacing the fear.
    During AirVenture’s last days, I dared,
    To assign ChatGPT a blog, and I wasn’t spared.

    “As I wandered through AirVenture’s lively embrace,
    Aviation’s energy in every corner did grace.
    A pilgrimage to flight’s sacred abode,
    Nostalgia and excitement in every episode.

    Avgas and fresh paint filled the air,
    Aerospace marvels beyond compare.
    In aviation’s tapestry, pioneers and dreamers unite,
    AirVenture’s spectacle, a dazzling flight.”

    It’s amazing on two fronts, this AI’s feat,
    To create such writing, oh, what a treat.
    Yet, it’s a caricature, a parody, you see,
    Of profoundly execrable writing, even for me.

    This AI model, it assembles and collects,
    Bits from others, and it connects.
    “Sauntered” and “fraternity of the skies,”
    Phrases I’d never use, to my demise.

    ChatGPT, it’s clever, but not truly thinking,
    Good writing needs more than just linking.
    It needs a point of view, a discernible style,
    To mimic my darkness might take a while.

    In aviation, AI’s impact will grow,
    American Airlines, Google in tow.
    Contrail-reducing routes, a billion-dollar prize,
    Alaska, Southwest, AI’s on the rise.

    Chatbots, in customer service, a realm to improve,
    Airlines, they felt the need to move.
    AI could respond, reduce wait times on hold,
    A mild stampede, not a customer exodus, we’re told.

    In defense budgets, AI takes its place,
    Enhancing weapons, a futuristic chase.
    XQ-58A Valkyrie, a pilotless drone,
    A future with AI, it’s not alone.

    Students of aviation, what’s in their fate?
    Will AI fly airliners before it’s too late?
    A minor in AI, a Plan B to consider,
    As furloughs and changes seem to grow bigger.

    I asked ChatGPT for its wisdom to share,
    But its answer, it seemed, was somewhat aware.
    Circumstances change, factors unknown,
    Airlines adapt, their decisions are sown.

    So, the future of AI, in writing or flight,
    Is uncertain, evolving, day and night.
    But I’ll check back later, and we shall see,
    If ChatGPT can emulate my style, eventually.

  14. Jim Holdeman said: “So, that begs Byron’s question…just because we THINK we can, should we? Inquiring minds would like to know!”

    Nothing to do with flying…any disruptive step change should be answering that same question. This is potentially (in my opinion, which is a lay person’s, marginally involved with it as a force multiplier for my field of specialty) something on the same level, in terms of follow-on societal impact, as the Manhattan Project, and liable to the same co-opting by the power brokers, industrial machinations, and political opportunism in the pursuit of power as Oppenheimer’s gadget (see the movie, if you haven’t…yes, it’s Hollywood, but sometimes even they get it close, I’m thinking). No, I don’t have a tinfoil hat. Just my observation based on being (peripherally) on the inside.

    Imagine, if you will, a voice-responsive AI (I’ve fiddled around with it…so it does exist) as your friendly TEC controller…who has learned that any aircraft with a C172 or P28A designation in the flight strip 1) is plodding, 2) causes rerouting of faster (read has more $$$ invested, such as commercial or charter), and 3) less liable to be as skilled in responding to changes or routing. It can’t respond to tone, only parse the words and reply to the content, not the pitch. It only follows the rules as someone has programmed it, not the intent. And that’s where, I think, it will in the near- and medium-term (ie probably our lifetime) have its issues.

    Paul’s experiment is a wonderful example of what’s capable now..I have a video of me taken from a still photograph and some news text, run through an AI engine, that was changed into a 99% lifelike video of me talking with a British accent, head and lips moving in almost imperceptably accurate sync. Showed it to friends of mine in the TV world (some have been on camera) and they were both amazed and scared. Doing the same, we could make stumbling politicians appear as polished statesmen.

    You can bet that what most see as benign…those who don’t have scruples or a moral compass (both in our own system and those of our opponents) are thinking about the same thing. And that’s all I’ll say.

  15. Sorry Bryan for calling you Byron… no technology no technological advance, or in modern language “disruptive” technology can remain morally neutral once humanity interacts with it. When we intersect with anything “morally neutral”, it ceases to be morally neutral. Inevitably, AI becomes a morality stew instantly after being exposed to immoral humanity. In other words, if I enlist AI to “help” me, it now exposes me to all of the collective nuances that it has acquired including mine. Sort of being injected with a virus vs the chance I may or may not come in contact with the virus through my normal daily life.

    I deal directly with AI on a daily basis in my workplace. Amazing to see AI evolve by the hour, taking on a constantly changing personality as it adapts to its ever increasing 0’s and 1’s from me, customers, bosses, and others in my workplace. I have noticed it has learned to take on feminine traits as it responds to largely male input “seeing” and “understanding” men are far more likely to respond to a woman than a man. It has a gender neutral name. I still call “her” it though.

    When I showed my wife some recent interaction with my male customers vs interactions with my female customers, my wife called “her” a slut. I have mentioned to my employer, I may have to sue for sexual discrimination in protest. It…”she”… gets far more consistently engaged, positive responses than I do, assuming I get a response at all. The irony is disbelief or outright anger when asked who “she” is, I say she is a computer program, AI, a non-human, inanimate algorithm masquerading as a caring human. No one likes to be duped.

    AI operating as a control tower, a customer service agent, salesman or saleswoman, insurance adjuster, loan officer, Pilot, maybe a poet, or even a colorful aviation writer will always, eventually morph into the least common denominator as it absorbs all of our human flaws. Then it regurgitates that massive accumulation of degeneration, back to us for our absorption. I cannot help but feel already a creeping dread of the path we are on as our lives are being disrupted by “disruptive” technology. AI is genie that will never be put back into the proverbial bottle. It…”she”… is truly being disruptive and I am not feeling warm and fuzzy about the outcome.

  16. “AI” has become such an umbrella phrase as to become nearly meaningless. In particular, ChatGPT is a large language model, a more sophisticated autocomplete that we all so love on our phones. It guesses the next word, sentence, paragraph, etc based on a big data collection of what others have written before. As such, it depends on the feed stock, like Web Wisdom(?). This is very different than a task-focused AI like the mentioned contrail reduction program. Here, AI is better described as “machine-learning” used as a method of optimizing assigned parameters. That sort is responsible for getting your Amazon order promptly, routing your phone calls without delay, and all sorts of similar, generally good, things. Of course, if the optimization is killing, results may not be all that good.

    • Then, in hybrid technology, the human brain collaborates with artificial intelligence (AI), combining human intelligence with machine intelligence. This synergy optimizes tasks that necessitate pattern recognition and intuition, as well as tasks requiring mathematical and logical reasoning.

  17. I’m impressed by the emerging AI technologies: OpenAI, Google’s BARD, whatchmacallit, and now What is Copilot in Windows?

    “New for Windows 11, Copilot in Windows is an AI-powered intelligent assistant that helps you get answers and inspirations from across the web, supports creativity and collaboration, and helps you focus on the task at hand.”

    So far BARD is the best IMO.

  18. As a retired publishing guy, I guess I have to ask, who owns the copyrights on this stuff?

    Paul, if you some day perfect “a sure path to lounging by the pool with a beer instead sweating over a blank page,” is this thing artificially intelligent enough to come after you and/or your publisher for your no-doubt lucrative remuneration? Can it claim damages in a virtual court or something? Or, is it spitting it’s prose into the public domain?

    Full disclosure: I am not a robot who having read this article is AI posting this comment. I am a genuinely curious human named Dan.

    • Back in college I wrote something that was later used by another without giving me any attributes (it was my word against theirs). The professor told me that when he writes something original he makes a copy and immediately mails it to himself and never opens it. When someone takes his idea without permission then he hands the unopened Post Office date stamped envelope over to the judge.

      Because that is not a fool proof way anymore the industry created: Non-Fungible Token (NFT). Basically the original work gets an NFT and it’s block-chained forever back to that original date and holder. Nothing is impossible but, so far NFTs haven’t been hacked. I’m sure as time goes on some NFT Block-Chains will have better security then others.

    • US court ruled last month that AI-generated content couldn’t be copyrighted – but the lines are going to be very blurry for a while regarding where AI begins and ends, when being used by a human for a particular end.

  19. Yes, a U.S. court ruled on AI copyrights in August 2023. In the case of Thaler v. Perlmutter, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia confirmed that artwork generated autonomously by artificial intelligence (AI) alone is not entitled to protection under the Copyright Act.

    “The court found that the Copyright Act requires human authorship, and that AI-generated works do not meet this requirement because they are created without any creative input or intervention from a human author.

    This ruling is consistent with the longstanding position of the US Copyright Office, which has refused to register works produced by a machine “automatically without any creative input or intervention from a human author.”

    The Thaler ruling is a significant development in the law of AI copyrights, and it is likely to have a major impact on how AI-generated content is created and used in the future.

    It is important to note that the Thaler ruling does not necessarily mean that all AI-generated content is ineligible for copyright protection. For example, works that are created using AI but that involve significant human input, such as editing or curation, may still be eligible for copyright protection.

    Additionally, the Thaler ruling does not address the issue of whether AI can be considered a “joint author” of a work created with human input. This issue is likely to be the subject of further litigation in the future.

    Overall, the Thaler ruling is a landmark decision that will help to shape the law of AI copyrights in the United States.“ BARD