ChatGPT Meets GWOT War-Fiction

ChatGPT

ChatGPT, a sophisticated artificial-intelligence text-producing application, launched in November 2022. Immediately, a flurry of reviews and articles appeared, many of them wondering what might be the import of ChatGPT for academic-writing. The possibilities for cut-and-paste plagiarism seemed bountiful, as ChatGPT not just coughed-up instantaneous chunks-of-information, a la Wikipedia and Google, but was capable of rendering judgment and organizing responses into arguments, “written” in bland-but-serviceable Standard Academic English.

I teach a college research-writing class, so I tried out ChatGPT on some of the subjects my students were writing on this semester. Xenotransplantation—the use of animal organs to replace human ones—was the subject of a couple of papers, so I plugged in the following question:

Question: How can xenotransplantation become more popular?

ChatGPT Response: Xenotransplantation can become more popular by increasing public awareness of the potential benefits and safety of the procedure. Education campaigns can raise awareness of the potential clinical uses of xenotransplantation, as well as the safety of the procedure. Additionally, research and development of xenotransplantation should be supported to ensure that the procedure is conducted in a safe and ethical manner. Furthermore, international regulations and protocols should be established and implemented to ensure that xenotransplantation is used in a responsible and ethical manner. Finally, governments should provide incentives for medical professionals and organizations to use the procedure.

My teacherly opinion is that such writing (and thinking) is not as fluid or nuanced as my best students produce, but far superior to that of less-accomplished ones. In the context of a research-paper, the passage could certainly be usable, especially if supplemented with evidence and quotations, or its ideas developed and complicated in ensuing paragraphs.

Oh well, the implications for the classroom will work themselves out as they will. Thinking about my interest in war-writing, I began musing about how ChatGPT could aggregate what might be said to be the hive-mind on a subject and give it the force of authoritative expression. In other words, what is the potential of ChatGPT wisdom to become the constituted collective wisdom on any given subject?

Pushing on, I tapped-in the following question:

Q1. What are the three best novels on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

ChatGPT Response: 1. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers 2. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel 3. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

That response can immediately be seen as problematic. Only The Yellow Birds is a novel, while The Good Soldiers and The Forever War are journalistic non-fiction. I next asked ChatGPT the following:

Q2. What is the best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

ChatGPT Response: The best novel on war in Iraq and Afghanistan is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. This award-winning novel is a powerful telling of two young soldiers’ wartime experiences and the difficult moral choices they must make. It captures the psychological toll of war for soldiers, their families, and those left in the wake of the conflict.

This is more promising, and also intriguing. How was ChatGPT able to spit that out in less than 10 seconds? I’m certain there’s no preexisting databank of responses, so somehow the program was able to canvass a fair amount of reviews, articles, and book-jacket blurbs to offer a sensible, though still fairly generic, response. Next I asked the following:

Q3: What is the reputation of Phil Klay’s Redeployment?

ChatGPT Response: Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a highly regarded work of fiction that has received widespread critical acclaim for its portrayal of the experiences of soldiers during and after the Iraq War. The book, which is a collection of short stories, was published in 2014 and won the National Book Award for Fiction the same year.

Redeployment has been praised for its immersive and realistic depiction of the psychological and emotional toll of war on soldiers, as well as for its nuanced exploration of the complex moral and ethical toll of war surrounding the Iraq War. Klay, who served in the US Marine Corps in Iraq, brings a unique perspective to his writing and his portrayal of the lives of soldiers has been praised as both sensitive and insightful.

In addition to the National Book Award, Redeployment has received numerous other awards and accolades, including the John Leonard Prize, the Chautauqua Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It has also been included on numerous “best books” lists and has received widespread coverage in the media. Overall, Redeployment has a strong reputation as a powerful and poignant work of fiction that offers a unique and valuable perspective on the Iraq War and its aftermath.

What to make of this? Though largely fact-based, the response organizes and articulates its response coherently, fluidly, and reasonably thoroughly, as if the product of an intelligent, no-nonsense author. Some of the language is obviously boiler-plate, but it’s not copied from any Internet source I could find. Determined to push ChatGPT even harder, I submitted the following:

Q4: What are the best qualities of Roy Scranton’s novel War Porn?

ChatGPT Response: 1. Thoughtful exploration of trauma: Roy Scranton’s War Porn touches on many difficult subject matters, ranging from addiction, PTSD, and the psychological effects of war. He explores these issues in a sensitive and nuanced manner that helps to provide a greater understanding of how war and its aftermath can shape a person’s life.

2. Emotional depth: Despite its light-hearted title, War Porn dives deep into the emotional tolls of war and how they linger in our lives even after the fighting is over. Scranton captures the complexities of war, humanizing those affected by it in order to emphasize the intense psychological and emotional trauma caused by conflict.

3. Innovative storytelling: With its unique blend of short stories, poems, and vignettes, War Porn is an innovative collection. It combines a variety of forms to create an engaging, immersive experience that often leaves the reader stunned and deeply moved.

4. Unflinching insight: War Porn also has an unflinching look at the devastation of war, particularly in the lives of those who are forced to bear witness to it firsthand. Roy Scranton provides an honest and often heartbreaking commentary on the effects of warfare on both individuals and a wider population.

I’ve organized the response into the 1-2-3-4 categories listed, but otherwise this response is verbatim. Much of it could be generic description of many war novels—and readers who know Scranton’s “The Trauma Hero” essay will chuckle at the description of War Porn as “thoughtful exploration of trauma”—but it also seems written from a place of some familiarity with the novel. In particular, #3 “Innovative storytelling,” though not exactly accurate in terms of “short stories, poems, and vignettes,” is alert to the blended stylistic quality of War Porn, which combines two distinct narratives with poetry passages. On display is a great weakness of ChatGPT as it currently exists: its inability to incorporate quotes from the text under discussion or from secondary-sources. But one could easily imagine taking the four categories of “thoughtful exploration of trauma,” “emotional depth,” “innovative storytelling,” and “unflinching insight” as start-points for one’s own examination of War Porn, even if to argue that it doesn’t do those things especially well; the categories get the conversation going as well as anything.

With my question about War Porn, my ChatGPT free trial ran out. Further experiments and thoughts to follow as they occur….

4 thoughts on “ChatGPT Meets GWOT War-Fiction”

  1. This is kind of terrifying and strange! I had never heard of ChatGP. But I love that you thriftily used your free trial to explore it.

    Always enjoy your posts,
    and merry Christmas Peter.

    1. Thank you, Andria, and Merry Christmas to you, too! Soon, all Time Now posts will be nothing but ChatGPT regurgitations….

  2. Peter, interesting insights on the tech and potential impact within academia and creative forums. I’ve played around with ChatGPT myself and find it to be much more advanced than other chat/conversational AI platforms, however, still not sentient:-) That said, I asked the same questions you did and got slightly different/nuanced responses. Is this based on some evolution of the conversational logic based on its history chatting with me? Is it based on multiple “chats” on the same topics? Is it a simplistically hard-coded “you must respond differently” logic? Dunno, but figured I’d share here for fun…

    I asked “How can xenotransplantation become more popular?” and here was the response (bracketed by asterisks)…

    ******

    Xenotransplantation, the practice of transplanting organs or tissues from one species to another, has the potential to address the shortage of organs available for transplantation in humans. However, there are several challenges that must be overcome before xenotransplantation can become more widely accepted and used.

    One major challenge is the risk of transmitting diseases from the donor species to the recipient. This can be mitigated through careful selection of healthy donor animals and through the use of various techniques to eliminate potential pathogens.

    Another challenge is the potential for rejection of the transplanted tissue or organ by the recipient’s immune system. This can be addressed through the use of immunosuppressive drugs or by modifying the donor tissue to make it more compatible with the recipient’s immune system.

    Other challenges include the ethical considerations associated with using animals as organ donors, as well as the technical challenges of performing complex surgeries involving organs from different species.

    In order for xenotransplantation to become more widely accepted, it will be important to address these challenges and to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of the procedure through clinical trials and other research.

    ******

    Assuming you pasted the exact response in your piece above, it’s a different and perhaps more nuanced response all together. Does it know something about me and my profession to focus on the life sciences aspect of drug interactions and clinical trials vs education, international, and regulatory themes in your response?

    Then, I asked “What are the three best novels on war in Iraq and Afghanistan?” and received the following response:

    ******

    There are many novels that deal with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it can be difficult to choose just a few as the “best.” Here are three novels that have received critical acclaim and offer different perspectives on these conflicts:

    “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers: This novel tells the story of two soldiers who are deployed to Iraq and the ways in which the war impacts their lives and relationships. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been praised for its portrayal of the psychological toll of war.

    “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel: This nonfiction book follows the experiences of a group of soldiers who are deployed to Iraq as part of the “surge” of 2007. It offers a raw and unflinching look at the realities of modern warfare.

    “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini: This novel tells the story of two women in Afghanistan who are impacted by the country’s tumultuous political history, including the Soviet invasion and the Taliban regime. It offers a poignant and moving portrayal of the ways in which war can shape the lives of ordinary people.

    Again, these are just a few examples and there are many other excellent novels that deal with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    ******

    #3 is different for me – is it based on some behavioral or preference data stored in the vast cookie jar of my browsing history? Is it accessing my book purchasing history to determine my interest in female-driven wartime narratives? Again, dunno, but interesting nonetheless:-)

    1. Hi Bryan, great comments! I have also experimented with inputting the same question and noticed that the responses grow longer and more detailed, and somewhat different, each time. The capacity for GPT to accumulate wisdom and approach higher levels of prose sophistication on any given subject very quickly seems enormous. I’m moving beyond worries about plagiarism to think how it might actually aid the research and writing process in my classes. Given the somewhat generic stock responses to questions, there’s potential for revising and editing the basic responses to give them more flow, flair, and nuance, plus adding in examples and evidence.

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