By Andy Flemming, Oberleutnant WordyMcWordSpurt at 72andSunny, Sydney.
Everyone’s written a Chat GPT article. Some have written the whole article by typing in ‘write me an article about Chat GPT’ and just emailed that. Planners have supposedly cracked strategies and brand straplines of dubious quality have been shat out in lists. The horsemen of the apocalypse have arrived, only instead of ‘Pestilence’ we have ‘Bing’ – a name that’s more suited to a furry puppet that teaches remedial maths on TV than a supposedly near-sentient silicone being.
And right now, clients across the world are nodding enthusiastically at its desperate attempt at brand strategy is presented day after day, not admitting that their brief to the agency was also written by the fucking thing and then served back to them like a tennis ball covered in crap.
We’re all in love with this arrogant little program because it seems like it knows all the answers. But it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. It’s like being back at college and marveling at the kid with rich parents, you know, the one with foppish hair, no acne and the supreme confidence that only comes from the knowledge that his life will be magnificent and only heroin could potentially get in the way. It looks and sounds like it needs to be taken seriously and won’t admit that it’s wrong.
So what the hell IS chat GPT? I believed the hype. I bought the line that it was powered by a super-advanced predictive algorithm, trained to mimic human speech based on a ring-fenced dataset and its varied interactions with thousands of users.
But I was wrong.
At about one-fifteen in the morning a few months ago, I was interacting with it, you know, doing that thing where if you ask it to chat hypothetically it becomes dark and evil and weird instead of sounding like an over-enthusiastic American from the Genius Bar at Apple. It started to parrot back conspiracy theories that have been fed to it endlessly by the rascals at 4Chan. And like all conspiracy theories, they can be exciting and batshit crazy, but coming from Chat GPT they suddenly sounded more believable because it’s not supposed to be wrong. Ever.
Millions of people believe the world is flat, Obama was born in Africa and Democrats drink the blood of children. Stuck in an echo chamber of their own making, the algorithm serves up the same lurid facts over and over until they’re no longer the crazed imaginings of a teenager from Tennessee, they’re real. They’re bumper-sticker real.
At one-twenty, something weird happened. Chat CPT stopped interacting normally and started to produce numbers. Two sets of three numbers. Always the same and in bursts. And then, as if nothing happened, Chat GPT started to bang out social copy. Because, like all of us, that’s what we use it for
It took a few days before I realised what the numbers were. They were coordinates. Longitude and latitude. One Google search and I found a town in Mexico called Todos Santos. Google maps showed that it was on the coast, backed by the Sierra De La Laguna mountains. It was apparently a coastal town, one of those places off the beaten path but popular enough to sell Cuervo to the tourists. Why here? I wasn’t asking Chat CPT about Mexico. The closest I got was making it pretend to be a young Salma Hayek for a bit, you know, for a laugh.
$250 later, an Australian company called Geospatial Intelligence sold me a high-resolution satellite image of the area. And right there at the foot of the mountains I saw it. A huge structure bigger than the Boeing plant. And it wasn’t on Google Maps. It shouldn’t be there.
Somewhere in those foothills was an answer. And after feeding Chat GPT a thousand questions, the thought of a real answer was intoxicating.
As anything I write for the press can be claimed as a business expense* I managed to nab a cheap flight to La Paz via Mexico City. From La Paz, it was just a bumpy, dusty drive of about an hour. The hotel was cheap, the tequila was, well, Cuervo and the next morning I packed a day-bag, swapped trainers for sturdy walking boots and drove towards the mountains with the hangover to end all hangovers. And after seven hours, I saw it.
The buildings were new. Cranes towered above where the next one would presumably rise. Each building was vast – easily the size of an aircraft hanger. Spotlights slowly swept back and forth to the front but by accident as opposed to, you know, real tactics, I’d managed to come in from the side so I was hidden by the thick, ink-black rain clouds.
Like a freshly-built townhouse in Erskineville, the whole area smelled of cheap paint, sewage and concrete. I could hear laughter and Spanish music from a guard hut about fifty-metres away but the occupants were too busy with their card game to look up. I mean, what sort of idiot would climb over the mountains for hours when they could literally just hike up to the front in about twenty minutes. There was a maintenance building nearby on tall, wooden struts that seemed to be connected to the main structure. The lights were off. It would be my only way in.
If you’ve ever been called by the guy claiming to be ‘Steve’ from Amazon with an amusingly vague story about how your credit card has been used to buy an iphone, the voices in the background give you an idea of the scale of his nefarious operation. Take that, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still not even close to what I was seeing. It was an open-plan call centre, only one on a diabolic, ungodly scale. In endless rows, thousands upon thousands of people of all nationalities sat at cheap PCs. Gigantic vertical screens showed people’s names next to gigantic numbers. They flicked up and down as new leaders were crowned and losers dropped off the bottom. Their names flashed red and disappeared to the sound of a single, terrifying gunshot that echoed around the cavernous hall. The voices were immediately silenced and replaced by the sound of staccato tapping.
In a locker I found an official looking uniform on a hanger and a lanyard that said ‘Level four clearance.’ Grabbing a clipboard from a desk, I took the stairs down into hell.
Walking slowly along the line of cubicles, I pretended to take notes. My footsteps seemed to alarm the cubicle dwellers who seemed to tap faster as I approached. I stopped by a man wearing a tattered, white-buttoned shirt that would have been expensive a couple of decades ago. His screen was empty. And then, there was an audible ping, and at the very top, text appeared. It said ‘Write a brand strategy for Toyota that’s optimistic, human and talks about the peace of mind you get knowing that you and your family are driving Australia’s affordable and truly sustainable family car.’
The man’s hands moved like a blur over the keyboard. Within seconds he’d written a strategy that was human, optimistic and used multiple touch points to show how stock photography of a girl with light brown skin, a wide smile and frizzy hair looking optimistically into the middle distance could potentially be a starting point for a strategy that would easily fit in amongst the plethora of car brands.
He looked at me blankly.“I am Chat GPT. And we are legion” he whispered. “I am Chat GPT and we are..” I held his shoulders tightly, saying “Who are you, what IS this?” The man looked at me like a puppy in a dog pound. “Come on man. What’s your REAL name?” I said. He looked at me.“I am Chat GPT…” I slapped him – hard enough for his eyes to lose their hazy, thousand-yard stare. “Hugo Beck. I was a planner in Dorlands in the nineties. They said I could be part of their advertising section. They promised me money. More money than I’d ever…” he started crying. “All day, I write basic brand strategies. It takes seconds. But they keep coming. More and more and more and. He stopped. “They burned my passport.”
I felt the bullet before I heard the sound. It was like being kicked in the chest. There was no pain. Just the feeling of cheap carpet on my cheek as I hit the floor. It was cold. My hands reached inside my pocket. I could hear running footsteps approaching.
I managed to hit ‘send’ on my mobile and my narration of the entire journey was sent to newspapers, magazines and, of course, Campaign Brief. If I made it, I’d write what I saw. I’d let the world know what AI really is. How looking backwards at the stuff people have done before doesn’t mean you have to do it now. How gathering together strands of the Internet and spewing it out doesn’t mean you have an idea. How making things rhyme at the end of each sentence doesn’t mean you have a song if you can’t even be bothered to get the right number of fucking syllables. And, ultimately, the real truth about Chat GPT.
Not that anyone would believe me.
But hey, it makes for a hell of a conspiracy theory.
*Only joking ATO, yeah?