A robot-generated digital image. The request was for a drawing of a “hamster airship.” Photo from NY Times, OpenAI.

Teachers are worried. Screenwriters are watching developments closely. Technology creators are plowed forward, thinking only of the potential payoffs. Other technology creators are scrambling to create countermoves. The chatbot authors are coming.

Writers–don’t panic…yet!

The hullabaloo is over new artificial intelligence (AI) technology which can now plausibly replicate natural language. In December, the company OpenAI released a ChatGPT application which generated an immediate frenzy. ChatGPT can carry on conversations in concise and plain language, answer questions, and write coherent stories. Some students have already used the application to submit papers; some have already been caught. Microsoft has sunk money into the technology, and more big money is planned. As the NY Times puts it “the new gold rush” is in full sway.

Our blogger friend Fandango tested out the new ChatBot, and this has prompted the Provocative Question of the Week. He charged the GPT (his was an app called Genie) with writing a story using a handful of prompt words–a typical blog task. His big questions is whether this suggests that AI is now surpassing human intelligence, and, if so, what will happen. That is indeed a big and important question, but I’m more interested in the smaller version: Is an algorithm that writes simple stories indistinguishable from humans; why or why not?

Continue reading “Chatbot/Author”

How Do Scientists Know?

Those scientists dudes–and dudenas–are so smart! They can tell you how much oxygen a dinosaur was using. They can figure out where the bubonic plague came from, 700 years ago. They can use new computers to rescan old pictures to look for earth-nudging asteroids. Exploring the universe with tools, logic, and an understanding of the behavior of things, they can describe what happened in places they can’t see and have never gone. Knowledge spreads ever-so-slightly outward into the vastness of the unknown.

Drawing of Dr. Jasmina Wiemann’s test subjects from

Strangely enough, it gives me a warm and fuzzy sense of comfort. As the kids say, Science gives you All the Feels. But let’s not get it tangled up with Belief.

Hot Blood Begets Hot Thoughts and Hot Deeds

Whether dinosaurs were hot-blooded or cold-blooded is a century-old argument. It was two whole classes in my semester of Paleontology 2A, back in the 1980s. Dr. Jasmina Wiemann at CalTech may have come across clues that explain why it’s been so hard to determine. The answer is a little of both.

Dinosaurs were reptiles. They lay eggs, and they don’t have fur/hair–I will spare you the much longer explanation involving clades. Modern reptiles are cold-blooded, ectothermic; they rely on external sources to raise body temperature enough to move around. They have slow metabolisms, so are very thrifty with their energy movements. Mammals and other creatures are endothermic or warm-blooded, with fast metabolisms. We can move around even when it’s not warm or sunny, even though we’d rather burrow under the covers. And some of us have such low metabolisms that even thinking about Cheetos causes bloating. But I digress.

Continue reading “How Do Scientists Know?”

Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees

In a marriage ceremony from a 1940s black-and-white comedy, the priest begins by invoking the birds and the bees. He keeps getting interrupted, which is an in-joke because the two at the altar are really supposed to marry other people. However, the real joke is the reference to birds and bees and marriage.

As this is spring, where a young ‘uns fancy turns to thoughts of love, and this is 2021, where some still point to Nature as evidence that heterosexual monogamy and genders are rigid, it’s worth thinking about. Because then they mention the birds and bees. Well, what do we all know about bees?

Research shows queen bees communicate honestly. Photo by Bernardo Ni, Penn State.

If Not Three Genders, then Three of Something

When a mommy bee and daddy bee love each other very much… oh, no. That’s not how it works. Let’s go to sixth grade biology. There are queen bees, worker bees, and drone bees. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say we’re taught that the queens and workers are females and the drones are male. All the drones do is help in reproduction. They try to mate with queens. If they’re successful, they die from the experience. If they aren’t able to mate and still hang around the hive when food gets scarce, the workers will kick them out, and they die. Limited functionality, you might say. They do contribute to genetic diversity, which some explanations say counters the idea that the drone is the “most ineffective and unhelpful bee in the hive.” But the genetic diversity comes about because the queen mates with multiple drones, so arguably the queen is providing the diversity.

Continue reading “Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees”
%d bloggers like this: