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After the Bell: Quelling questionable quandaries with GPT-4

After the Bell: Quelling questionable quandaries with GPT-4
Illustration: (Photo: Nasa) | Getty Images

The company OpenAI launched its fourth version of its Generative Pre-Trained Transformer (ChatGPT) on Wednesday and, frankly, I don’t know exactly how to feel about it.

Where were you when the first person walked on the moon? Were you even born? This was of course Neil Armstrong, and the date was 20 July 1969. My family and I listened to the radio broadcast early in the morning in a hotel room in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, now called the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. I heard the static-filled voice of Armstrong when he said the memorable words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he stepped off the lunar module Eagle. I was 10 years old. 

I have to say, it was a little boring. There were long gaps between the messages from the Houston space centre and replies from the astronauts. For a 10-year-old on holiday in a game reserve, I could think of better things to do. Obviously, as I grew older, the significance of the achievement became gradually more impressive. There were songs on the radio about space; science fiction was a commonly read genre. For a moment there it took over our imaginations.

But looking back on it now, we have to face an unfortunate fact. The moon missions were a bit of a bust. They were principally significant for geopolitical reasons and less as a launchpad to additional space travel. Driving around on the moon in a vehicle meant we could tick off the achievement of getting to the moon with equipment on board, but where did we go from there? There was no way to survive on the moon for any length of time.  Moon rocks are, geologically speaking, kinda the same as Earth rocks.

There was some kind of assumption that once we humans had got to the moon, we would then just take the next step and pop over to Mars in a few years. And then it would be on to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. But it never happened for the very obvious reason that the moon is far away, but is a hop, skip and a jump compared with going to Mars — just 384,400km compared with 150 million kilometres. And as for Alpha Centauri, well, that is a different kettle of fish entirely.

Of course, technological innovations linked to the space race are innumerable and include things like digital photography, water filtration systems and solar panels, home insulation and even shock absorbers but nevertheless, the moon missions came to an end, and our dreams were left unfulfilled. Or perhaps entirely fulfilled. 


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There is more interest now in getting back to the moon, and several missions are planned. And this time, Mars is in the sights of the new generation of rocketeers. But you do slightly have to ask about the overall intention here. Even entrepreneur Elon Musk, who says he wants to go to Mars, has admitted that it will be “heavy sledding” to actually live there.

The reason this all comes to mind is that the company OpenAI launched its fourth version of its Generative Pre-Trained Transformer (ChatGPT) on Wednesday and, frankly, I don’t know exactly how to feel about it. It’s not a booming moment, like Armstrong sliding down the stairs of the Apollo Eagle lunar module. And after all, it’s (already) the fourth version of the engine.

And yet, I can’t help feeling this is something akin to the moon landing, if not in scientific achievement then in the way it will grip our imaginations. The first and most obvious question is how does GPT-4 compare to GPT-3? I think the simple answer is that you will be blown away.

Of course, it outperforms its predecessor on every metric, but the scale is almost unimaginable. GPT-1 had 117 million parameters dictating what it could do; the second version had 1.2 billion parameters. Then there was a big jump to GPT-3, with the number of parameters increased to 175 billion. At this stage, it was capturing people’s imaginations.

But GPT-4 has about 100 trillion parameters, which means it’s about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor. At that level, GPT-4 will have almost as many parameters as there are neural connections in the human brain.

So what can it do? It can pass a US bar exam; it can pass advanced high school History and Maths tests better than 80% of entrants. The big step forward is with graphic recognition: It can create working websites from drawings on a piece of paper. And it can assume different personalities, like “Socratic tutor” to help students by asking questions rather than giving answers.

In the GTP-4 developer live stream, OpenAI president and soon-to-be-incredibly-rich-if-he isn’t-already Greg Brockman said some things just stumped GPT-3, and all the developers had these little tests to see if GPT-4 could get its “head” around them in a way the predecessor could not. (I just used a personification to describe the engine — trust me, that’s going to be a thing).

Anyway, Brockman’s stumping task was to ask GPT to summarise a text into a single sentence, with every word beginning with a single letter. He put in the test associated with the launch of GPT-4 and asked it to perform that task using the letter G. The engine came up with “Gigantic GPT-4 garners groundbreaking growth, greatly galvanising global goals”. Then he was asked online to try the same test using the letter Q and it came up with “GPT-4 quintessentially quickens quality quantifications, quelling questionable quandaries”. I am not making this up. And there is more, of course.

I mean, I’m impressed. No, I’m bowled over — and I was expecting to be impressed, but nothing like this! This is a moment, people. Well, I think it is. We all thought landing on the moon was a moment, but it sort of was and it wasn’t. But this is a different level. Surely? DM/BM

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  • Dana van der Merwe says:

    Love thinking about the legal implications of GPT-4!

  • Chris Crozier Crozier says:

    I can only agree with the theme of the article. I’m getting nervous about the future of AI, and I’m a lifelong sci-fi fan.
    A small correction, though: I listened to the moon landing on radio too, enthralled (I was a bit older), and also remember clearly Neil Armstrong getting his line wrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” he said, missing the article and confusing me for a second or two!

  • Penny Swift says:

    Microsoft claims that Bing Chat runs on Open AI’s latest language model, GPT-4, and that the only free way to access GPT-4 is Bing Chat. Any thoughts? So far I’m not impressed with the new Bing Chat – for various reasons. But I’d love to hear other opinions.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    It’s kind of scary 😧

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