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The Great Automatic Grammatizator: ChatGPT, 1950s Style
Seventy years ago, Roald Dahl wrote a short story about a world that might sound eerily familiar in the age of ChatGPT.
Back in 1954, Norwegian author Roald Dahl—best known for his children's books, including The BFG and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory—published a collection of short stories for adults. Among them was one called "The Great Automatic Grammatizator".
The story is particularly noteworthy today, not just for its depiction of a generative artificial intelligence that is uncannily similar to ChatGPT's capabilities, but for the social and creative challenges that it prompts, recalling the concerns of the recent Hollywood Writers' Strike.
The text of this story is available online, but given the technology at our disposal we'll include a summary provided by ChatGPT.
The story introduces us to Adolph Knipe, a struggling writer who partners with D.J. Willing, a wealthy and ambitious publisher. Together, they create the "Great Automatic Grammatizator," a machine capable of generating novels automatically. This machine uses an extensive database of literary elements to produce novels tailored to popular tastes. As a result, the publishing process becomes highly profitable and efficient.
In the original ending, Knipe, troubled by the Grammatizator's consequences on literature, faces a moral dilemma. He decides to expose the machine's existence to the world, hoping to draw attention to the dehumanizing and profit-driven nature of the publishing industry. However, this decision has personal and professional repercussions for Knipe.
In the alternate ending, Knipe and Willing continue to use the Grammatizator for financial gain, capitalizing on its ability to generate bestselling novels. The story illustrates the consequences of the Grammatizator on the publishing industry, with a focus on the transformation from artistic creativity to profit-driven mass production.
Both endings serve as a satirical commentary on the publishing industry, highlighting how the pursuit of financial success can overshadow the value of authentic storytelling and artistic creativity. They raise questions about the role of technology in literature and the potential consequences of prioritizing commercial interests over genuine artistry.
A key point in the story is that grammar follows predictable and logical rules. Therefore, given a framework and some basic parameters, creating a piece of text of any kind should be a deterministic process than can be replicated by a machine. Seventy year later, these realities also underpin ChatGPT and other generative AI software, which have proven to be highly effective.
In the second version of the story, Knipe travels the country to sign up leading authors, whose names will be used for marketing in return for an annual payment, but who will never write another word. Most writers he approaches sign the contract, though not for the money, as Knipe explains to Willing.
Knipe grinned, lifting his lip and baring a long pale upper gum. “Simply because she saw the machine-made stuff was better than her own.”
1954 Vs 2023
In Roald Dahl's outlook, the publisher/tech company stands to benefit by establishing a monopoly, effectively using AI to push out all human writers, who cannot compete with the speed and quality of the machine.
Today, the situation is, thankfully, different. Early indications are that copyright law will not favor those who create content using AI alone, and unions and guilds are similarly seeking protections for members who might otherwise be unfairly disadvantaged by this new technology.
Even so, we haven't started to scratch the surface of how AI will affect society and our economy, or how the tensions between content creators, publishers, and technology companies will be resolved.
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