A bot answered Reddit questions at one per minute. This engineer discovered it was powered by GPT-3

A visualization from OpenAI, the creator of GPT-3

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By Christopher Brennan

How do you know that what you’re reading on the internet, right now even, is being written by a human rather than a robot? 

Deepnews.ai can spotlight reporters and writers doing quality work around the world. It is essentially an AI-based tool that “reads.” But there are also AI-based software that “write” increasingly convincing text. This week’s blog post looks at an application of GPT-3, a language model from researchers at San Francisco-based OpenAI.

GPT-3 has been a hot subject since this summer as observers began seeing its output in different forms and offering praise for the sophistication of the language as compared to previous text-generation models. That in turn led to a flurry of press in places like the NY Times, The Atlantic and The Guardian. But one application this week was eye-catching.

Phillip Winston, a software engineer in Virginia, was on Reddit and stumbled across a post wondering whether another particularly prolific user was a bot. The user in question, thegentlemetre, was answering questions on the forum in bursts of one per minute, with six paragraphs of well-composed text. 

“It was just a great diversity of questions from serious to totally flippant and silly. And the bot was handling them all with equal aplomb,” Winston told Deepnews.ai.

The engineer, not an expert in AI, said that he was struck by the insight and humor of some phrases, such as, “The purpose of exercise is to avoid thinking about the fact that you spend your life working for money.” He originally Googled to see if the text had been taken by the bot from somewhere else on the internet, but when his searches came up empty he began thinking about GPT-3. 

Courtesy of Philip Winston

“I had read about GPT-3 a number of times and have always really been interested when they posted examples … A lot of times, the journalist was playing with it and prompting it. And of course they all do the story of getting GPT-3 to write about GPT-3, which is cute. But I felt like I didn’t have a good sense of its capabilities and this I thought was just a really good illustration of one where there was like 1000 posts,” he said.

Winston’s suspicions ended up being confirmed when he posted his idea to a more specialized group on the technology. Shortly thereafter the output of the bot was picked apart, with one user pointing out that it was writing answers of six paragraphs, a sign that it could be using Philosopher AI, based off of GPT-3.

Murat Ayfer, who built Philosopher AI, responded to Winston and told The Register that his logs confirmed that thegentlemetre had not only been using his application, but had gotten around a filter he had added to prevent abuse. After the filter was fixed, thegentlemetre’s posting stopped, though has recently started again

Winston’s blog outlining how he got to the bottom of the bot user has been shared all over the world. You can check it out yourself for more examples that he plucked from the bot’s output, such as answering a question about the year 2020 with “In 2020, the human world will still be predominated by irrationality and tribalism.”

But the appearance of thegentlemetre raises questions that go far beyond one user on Reddit. 

“There’s a cliché for ‘If you found a problem it’s not your only problem.’ So we found this easy. But there are other GPT-3 bots out there. There has to be. The odds that we found the only one and that the only one is posting once per minute to Ask Reddit … Someone is posting to a diversity of groups, with shorter answers so they’re less obvious, and a varying time schedule,” Winston said.

This version based on Philosopher AI, despite at points discussing conspiracies such as The Illuminati and topics such as suicide, was relatively benign, and some of its output is in fact funny or insightful. However, there are also concerns about uses of text-generation fine-tuned for other purposes. For subjects such as misinformation there is not only a worry about sophistication, with bot posts that can fool humans, but also about scale, in that text-generating bots could generate what Winston calls “10,000 Wikipedias” worth of words in a short period of time.

Looking forward, as the bots (made and directed of course by humans) become more advanced, there are decisions about what they are used for, how humans interact with them, making sure they are identified as bots, as well as whether there are places where they are not allowed to generate huge amounts of text.

“The next generation is going to be more subtle and more clever so I think that, on the one hand, I think bots are here to stay,” Winston stays.

“But on the other hand I think that the value of social networks is going to be in authenticating that people are human, that you’re interacting with them. You won’t want to participate unless there’s some feeling that these are humans.”

3 thoughts on “A bot answered Reddit questions at one per minute. This engineer discovered it was powered by GPT-3

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  3. Pingback: GPT-3 Bot Posed as a Human on AskReddit for a Week - GistTree

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