Apr 21, 2022 7 min read

#340: Hey Google, Please Write My Essay

#340: Hey Google, Please Write My Essay

Dear Loyal Readers, Lately I’ve been thinking about reading – why we do it and what makes it so rewarding. In a recent interview , poet and author Ocean Vuong said, “I think, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic or emo, I feel truer to myself while reading than I do experiencing the world through

Dear Loyal Readers,

Lately I’ve been thinking about reading – why we do it and what makes it so rewarding. In a recent interview, poet and author Ocean Vuong said, “I think, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic or emo, I feel truer to myself while reading than I do experiencing the world through my body — so any chance to read is ideal for me.” My love of reading may not be as strong as Mr. Vuong’s, but ever since I launched this newsletter almost seven years ago, I’ve believed deeply in the power of reading, both alone and in community. After all, if we read only the best stuff, and if we reflect and act on what we’ve read, we become better people, more kind and thoughtful. Loyal readers, I’m grateful that you appreciate the highest-quality nonfiction, and I’m happy that you read each week’s selections along with me.

This week’s issue explores the wonders and dangers of artificial intelligence, particularly in the world of language and creative expression. Even if you’ve been following the advancements of GPT-3, this week’s lead article, “A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust What It Says?” will blow your mind, especially if you’re an English teacher, or someone like me who struggles to write clear and coherent prose. If technology has indeed made our society dumber, as last week’s issue suggested, apparently all we need to do is get the machines to write our essays and emails (and novels and poems) for us.

📫 I’d love to hear what you think. Please go ahead and hit reply, leave me a voice message, or send me a text.

Happy reading!


PS - Many of you have been confiding in me lately. You’re saying: “I want to read more. I aspire to read more. But I just can’t carve out the time. What should I do?” If this is you, let’s talk. I want to make The Highlighter not just a digest of great articles but also a supportive place where we can figure out ways to read more and find more joy and calm in our lives.

A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust It?

A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust It?

Back in my teaching days, my colleagues and I used to assign “The Big Book,” which challenged our students to write 40 pages of original prose in a variety of genres centering on a common theme. Our students groaned the whole way through the yearlong project. But at the end, when they published their book, saw their words in print, and shared their work in a public exhibition, they beamed with pride. Their hundreds of hours of painstaking hard work had paid off.

But what’s the point of trying so hard? Soon, with the help of artificial intelligence and GPT-3, young people (and adults!) will be able to whip up perfectly cogent essays in the matter of seconds.

In this mind-boggling article, Steven Johnson explains how neural nets and large language models have combined to craft language that is becoming indistinguable from (and sometimes better than) human writing.

Mr. Johnson writes:

The machines have acquired language. The ability to express ourselves in complex prose has always been one of our defining magic tricks as a species. Until now, if you wanted a system to generate complex, syntactically coherent thoughts, you needed humans to do the work. Now, for the first time, the computers can do it, too.

Are you scared? I am. Despite the wishes of GPT-3’s founders to keep their technology open source in order to “benefit humanity as a whole,” there’s no guarantee that users won’t employ the software for nefarious ends. A current version sometimes spits out racist rhetoric – perhaps an accurate current portrayal of our species. A less-racist update is more palatable but sounds like a proponent of critical race theory. How do we teach values to a computer? Who gets to be the teacher? (45 min)

➡️ Click here to read the article. Or click the headline up top.

📚 Save the article on Pocket and read it later.

✏️ Check out a physical version of the article with my highlights.

⭐️ Hit reply and tell me what you think.

Tuba, who belongs to loyal reader Sele, is one the most beloved pets at The Highlighter. He likes to spread joy to all. Want your pet to be featured? hltr.co/pets

More great articles about artificial intelligence

As an astute loyal reader of The Highlighter, you may be noticing that I’m experimenting with the newsletter’s format and changing things up a bit. Indeed I am! I hope you like and appreciate the extra attention I’m giving to the lead article. After all, it’s the best of the best. But despite my intention to feature fewer articles, I just can’t resist recommending these two outstanding pieces, also exploring the ills of artificial intelligence.

I’m The Operator,” by Lauren Smiley

Wired Magazine | March 8, 2022

Uber operator Rafaela Vasquez’s gray Volvo SUV was supposed to stop. That’s what the software said it would do. Except it didn’t, killing a bicyclist in the first fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle back in 2018. Even though the investigation revealed that Uber had stripped Volvo’s automatic braking system, Ms. Vasquez found herself accused of negligent homicide. Is it the human’s fault when the computer gets things wrong? Especially when the computer belongs to a massive corporation that wants to replace the human? (48 min)

+ Did you hit a paywall? Don’t worry. Try this Google Docs version. And if you prefer, here’s a magazine version with my highlights.

Love And Loss In The Age Of A.I.,” by Jason Fagone

San Francisco Chronicle | July 21, 2021

NoteIssue #306

+ Mr. Fagone is also the author of “The Lottery Hackers,” which has nothing to do with technology but nonetheless was one of my favorite articles of 2018. He participated in Article Club in July 2020.

MJ, who belongs to VIPs Angelina and Clem, does not approve of artificial intelligence. He prefers reading physical books and writing his reflective journals with his Montblanc fountain pen. Is it time for your pet to achieve stardom? hltr.co/pets

Reader Annotations

Last week’s lead article, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” argued that the rise of social media has resulted in our society’s stupefaction. Several of you shared your appreciation of the article. Loyal reader Lisa called the piece “depressing as hell” but accurate. “It has enabled our worst instincts and has made us dumber, as thinking and discerning are no longer required for social discourse.”

But is social media the lone and ultimate cause of our society’s decline? I wasn’t so sure:

Really, has social media caused all this? Are we really beholden to our phones and newsfeeds? Can’t we all decide to sign off of Twitter (and Elon Musk) for a while? Couldn’t our politicians become less petty if they wanted to? Or are we too far gone?

Many of you, on the other hand, were sure. We are too far gone, you said, and social media is the culprit. Loyal reader Renée put it plainly, suggesting that even if we wanted to change our ways, our addiction prevents us.

Despite the gloomy tone of the article, several of you wrote in to share your progress on ridding yourself of Instagram or Facebook or TikTok. (Except for Twitter, I’m right there with you!) Maybe we should all heed loyal reader Kati’s idea: Let’s get off our screens and hang out with friends in real life.

Thank you Lisa, Renée, and Kati for taking the time to share your perspectives. The whole point of this newsletter is to read great articles, reflect on them, and see how we can apply what we’ve learned. Loyal readers, if today’s lead article resonated with you, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can email me or send me a voice message.

That’s the end. Are you sad?

Thank you for reading this week’s issue of The Highlighter. Did you enjoy it? If so, give me a thumbs up below and tell me why. And if you didn’t like it, that’s OK, too – that’s what the thumbs down is for.

To our new subscriber Cem, I hope you find the newsletter a solid addition to your email inbox. To our long-time subscribers (Irene! Ingrid! Ilene!), you’re pretty great, too. Loyal reader Jo, thank you for sharing the newsletter and getting the word out.

If you like The Highlighter, please help it grow. I appreciate your support. Word of mouth is how our reading community gets stronger. Here are a few ways you can help:

📬 Forward today’s issue to a friend and urge them to subscribe. If they use this sign-up form, they can say you referred them, and when I find out, I will shower you with thanks and praise (and maybe a prize).

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On the other hand, if you no longer want to receive this newsletter, please unsubscribe. See you next Thursday at 9:10 am PT.

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