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Fact-Check – Was a recent speech by Cyril Ramaphosa genuinely AI-generated?

Fact-Check – Was a recent speech by Cyril Ramaphosa genuinely AI-generated?
President Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte (not pictured), and Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen (not pictured) address the Business Forum held at the Capital Menlyn Maine Hotel in Pretoria, 20 June 2023. (Photo: GCIS)

You may have seen a little storm break out online recently over the question of whether the South African government is using artificial intelligence (AI) to write its speeches.

The claim was made by a right-wing podcaster in response to a speech given by President Cyril Ramaphosa in late November about education. In particular, this podcast bro spotted some paragraphs relating to the need to decolonise African education and took to Twitter to opine that the whole speech was AI-generated.

Another chap then jumped on the wagon, ran the speech through a few free AI-detection services, and came back with the finding that in at least one case, there was an 89% chance that the speech had been written by a service like ChatGPT.

Cue outrage online, and tweets like the following presenting this statement as 100% fact: “Ramaphosa’s speech in praise of decolonised education was written by AI”.

Let’s take a step back and look at what was actually going on here.

The speech in question was given by President Ramaphosa on 21 November at the Education International conference in Sandton in Johannesburg. It was the welcoming address to delegates.

The president’s speech on this occasion was, to the say the least, nothing special. When you strip out the greetings to various dignitaries it amounted to 830 words, which is shorter than the average article on Daily Maverick, and all it says, in essence, is that education is important and teachers are important. There’s also a bit where Cyril recommends some tourist destinations to visit in Joburg.

The bit about decolonising African education which seems to have so triggered the podcast bro in question amounts to just 78 words, less than 10% of the total speech.

So in summary, this is an absolute nothing-burger of a speech. It is the kind of virtually meaningless address given by Cabinet members and government officials at these kinds of conferences and events every day, and 99% of the time they don’t make the news because there is frankly nothing of substance within them.

So, some would argue that to pay this much attention to this kind of speech at all is, well, dumb.

But the bigger issue is the idea that you can use free AI detection services to unmask text as being written by AI. This is simply not the case with any reliability whatsoever, as the makers of ChatGPT acknowledged earlier this year when they ditched their own AI detection tool on the grounds that they had realised it simply didn’t work.

In the case of the online sleuths bent on exposing the South African presidency for using ChatGPT, they were running samples of fewer than 100 words through the already unreliable AI detectors, rendering the findings even less trustworthy.

Read more in Daily Maverick: AI – the beginning of the end of the cellphone?

What are the hallmarks of AI-generated text? Well, it tends to be an extremely generic, boring, even-handed word porridge. What are the hallmarks of government speeches? Guess what? Samesies.

The truth is, the genres of government speech-writing and AI-generated text are similar. Neither of them are going to be marked by unusual word choices or controversial thought. Bottom line: We can’t tell with any certainty whether AI wrote Cyril’s speech.

And a question for another day: Would it matter, in any real way, if it did? DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • FO Molteno says:

    If the ANC used AI it would be an improvement.
    Decolonising education is tantamount to stupefying intelligence!

  • Iam Fedup says:

    The fact that many people believe that it’s true is what’s most telling. Whether the speech was written by AI is irrelevant, but since the ANC and it’s president all have a reputation of cheating, (not to mention all the criminality,) NOTHING they say can be considered factual unless proven otherwise. Presume guilt and let the scoundrels prove they are innocent.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    “Would it matter in any real way if it did?” Of course it matters. It matters immensely. It matters because it makes the difference between whether our politicians think for themselves or are happy to have the creators of ChatGPT think for them. It matters because machines are amoral and emotionless, so the only morals and emotions brought to bear are those of the creators of ChatGPT. It matters because it is one small step towards allowing machine control of humanity

    • Bick Nee says:

      I agree with your overall sentiment, but I think the point being made is that if this particular speech had been written by AI it wouldn’t matter, seeing as it was bland and meaningless drivel.

  • Johan Herholdt says:

    You seem to suggest that the average government speechwriter is as intelligent as ChatGBT. That is what the boringly politically-correct ChatGBT would say. And it’s simply not true.

  • Jaunine Conradie says:

    I will not be surprised if it was AI or himself. If you look at how AI works, its results is a statistical prediction of the most likely content that should be included. The same way as what a person like Ramaphosa does anyway.

  • Wayne Kitching says:

    I once read an article where non-native English speakers complain that their academic writing is flagged as being generated by AI. The problem is that the regular “formulaic” style used by non-native speakers also looks a lot like AI-generated text.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Quite right!
    Whatever the muppets in the government share with us, is of no benefit to anyone. Whatever or whoever strings the words together, is simply being paid to produce a collection of words that nobody is interested in either reading, or listening to.

  • Rae Earl says:

    The sheer levels of boredom which reside in anything and everything Ramaphosa says, makes him a worthy candidate for the most boring politician of the decade. He vomits meaningless platitudes and inane verbiage at every opportunity which is why the masses no longer listen to what he has to say. Or doesn’t. Time to retire to Phala Phala and leave the talking to someone else Mr. President. But please! Not Fikile Mbalula! He is unable to string 5 words together that make sense.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    I would agree, same old rubbish.

  • Con Tester says:

    Another parallel between AI-generated text and the output of the ANC’s speech writers is that large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT tend to “invent” stuff when pressed—just like the ANC’s speech writers do. In addition, such LLMs aren’t very good with mathematics or even basic arithmetic…

  • Richard Bryant says:

    I think it’s more than that. I think the lifeless looking Ramaphosa reading the AI generated speech is also an AI computer generated image of Ramaphosa. There can be no other reason why he never ever invites the media or have questions and answers afterwards.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    “The claim was made by a right-wing podcaster”

    What’s that about? Would it have been more or less valid if it had been made by a left wing podcaster? What’s the criteria for getting labelled ‘right wing’?

  • Joe Soap says:

    And a question for another day: Would it matter, in any real way, if it did? It would, it would increase government’s intelligence, even if only artificially.

  • gretabredell says:

    The I in AI stands for intelligence. No sign of that in any of his speeches.

  • Con Tester says:

    How can a comment be gummed up in the moderation queue for 10 hours or more?! 🤔

    Clearly, there’s a problem with this system.

  • Andrew Kelly says:

    Excellent article; very informative and telling. Obviously it’s being widely read, as it’s stirred up quite a mess of comments. For me, the frightening realization is the philosophical point that we (humanity) can no longer reliably distinguish what has been generated by AI vs by real humans, not even the creators of the AI technology can do that! And this, I think, is why many AI boffins are getting worried about our future as a species…

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