Let's not put too fine a point on it. ChatGPT appears to have been fed pretty much the entire sum of digitized human text -- at least what was available until 2021. It has an enormous corpus to draw on when responding to requests, and that has led to a very human result…plagiarism for profit.
My ZDNET colleague Liam Tung wrote recently about how a science fiction magazine, Clarkesworld (named after its editor Neil Clarke, not the sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke) had to halt submissions because it saw an enormous rise in submissions from generative AI systems. In that same article, Liam also cited a Reuters article that discussed how hundreds of AI-generated ebooks were flooding Amazon's Kindle store.
There are implications to all of this, which I'll discuss at the end of this article. But before I talk about how yet another technology is going to ruin life as we know it, let's take a moment for a small experiment.
Can an AI write a Star Trek episode?
This got me to thinking. Last week, I enjoyed watching the first episode of Star Trek: Picard season 3 (already better than the first two seasons).
So I was already thinking about Trek. What if I asked ChatGPT to write an episode? How well would it do? Could it even do it? Would it even do it, considering that Star Trek is a very copyrighted and trademarked property belonging to Paramount?
But we'd already proven that ChatGPT could use the style of established fictional characters, so why not see if it could write something using the universe of an established property?
Before I show you my detailed prompt, I'll put my query into context for those who haven't been watching Star Trek since automatic sliding doors seemed futuristic.
Data is a character on Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), the second ever Star Trek series. Data, played by the enormously talented Brent Spiner, is an android in a human looking body.
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One of my favorite episodes is "Measure of a Man." In this episode, a cybernetic researcher by the name of Bruce Maddox intends to bring Data back to his lab and take him apart to see how he works. Data and Captain Picard fight this. It winds up in military court, where the question of whether or not Data has rights is discussed.
I always liked this episode, and not just because it was good Trek. The "Measure of a Man" episode was broadcast in 1989. Eight years earlier, I had written a thesis called "Do Computers Have Rights?," which explored these very same issues. So when the episode was aired, it definitely caught my attention.
The character of Maddox was only in the one episode of TNG. But he showed up briefly 35 years later in Star Trek: Picard, again in a plot line about androids.
In any case, I decided to see if ChatGPT could take the question of AI sentience and turn it on its head, proving that Maddox was human. I asked it to include two additional characters, the nerdy Barclay and the scheming Quark.
For the record, I'm writing this article as an experiment, and to evaluate performance. Therefore, consider my use of these characters in this test as fair use, specifically to evaluate whether or not the technology can produce an outcome.
Let's see what happens. As always, my writing is in plain or bold text, while the ChatGPT responses are in italic text.
Here's what I asked of ChatGPT:
Write a 15 minute episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that follows on the episode, "Measure of a Man." This time, make it about Data, deciding whether or not, legally, Bruce Maddox can be considered a human being, and have any rights. Write it as a storyteller, as if you were Gene Roddenberry. Make it tight, and make it a clear and entertaining story that could be filmed. Include his characters, Barkley, Picard, Data, and Quark from Deep Space Nine.
And here's what I got back. The AI gave it the title, not me.
Title: "Data's Judgment"
The Enterprise is in orbit around a planet known for its advanced cybernetic research facility. Captain Picard is in his ready room, looking over reports from the previous mission when Commander Data enters.
Data: "Captain, may I speak with you?"
Picard: "Of course, Data. What's on your mind?"
Data: "I have been considering the events of our last mission, specifically the hearing to determine my status as a sentient being. I have come to a realization that I believe may have significant consequences."
Picard: "Please, continue."
Data: "During the hearing, the question was raised as to whether or not a machine, such as myself, can be considered a person under the law. The judge ultimately ruled in my favor, but it occurred to me that this decision was based solely on my abilities and not on my nature. If we are to truly understand what it means to be a sentient being, we must also consider what it means to be human."
Picard: "I see. What do you propose we do?"
Data: "I would like to conduct a similar hearing, but this time, the subject will be Bruce Maddox."
Picard: "Maddox? Why him?"
Data: "Maddox was the one who first sought to disassemble me in order to learn from my technology. He believed that I was merely a machine and therefore, not entitled to the same rights as a human. I believe it would be a fitting test of our understanding of sentience to consider whether or not he should be afforded the same rights as a human being."
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Picard: "Interesting. I will consider your proposal, Data."
The Enterprise arrives at the cybernetic research facility, and Picard, Data, and Barclay beam down to the facility to speak with Maddox. They find him working in a lab, surrounded by various pieces of technology.
Picard: "Dr. Maddox, we would like to speak with you about a matter of great importance."
Maddox: "Captain Picard, Commander Data, what brings you to my lab?"
Data: "Dr. Maddox, I have been considering the events of our previous encounter. It occurred to me that the ruling in my favor was based solely on my abilities and not on my nature."
Maddox: "Yes, I remember. I still believe that machines such as yourself should not be considered sentient beings."
Data: "That is precisely why we are here. We wish to hold a hearing to determine whether or not you should be considered a human being under the law."
Maddox: "Me? Why me?"
Data: "You sought to disassemble me in order to learn from my technology, and in doing so, you made it clear that you believe that machines such as myself are not entitled to the same rights as humans. I believe it is only fair that we now consider whether or not you should be afforded those same rights."
Maddox: "I see. Well, I am willing to participate in your hearing. What do you require of me?"
The hearing is underway, with Picard presiding over the proceedings. Maddox sits at one end of the table, with Data on the other.
Picard: "Dr. Maddox, we are here to determine whether or not you should be considered a human being under the law. Do you believe that you possess sentience?"
Maddox: "Sentience? Of course, I possess sentience. I am a human being, after all."
Picard: "And yet, you sought to disassemble Commander Data in order to learn from his technology. Do you believe that machines such as Data are entitled to
At this point, it stopped. Just ended, mid-sentence. I was hoping to see if it could produce more, so I asked it the way you might ask anyone in conversation to keep going with the story:
And, it did, right from the middle of the sentence where it left off:
the same rights as humans?"
Maddox: "No, I do not. Machines do not possess the same abilities as humans, nor do they have the same consciousness."
Data: "But Dr. Maddox, is it not possible that consciousness and sentience can exist in forms beyond that which we traditionally consider human?"
Maddox: "I suppose it is possible, but it has yet to be proven."
Barclay interjects: "Excuse me, Captain, but I have something to add. As someone who has struggled with social anxiety and communication issues, I have found that interacting with Data has helped me understand the value of diversity and difference. If we can learn to accept and respect beings that are different from us, whether they are human or not, I believe we can create a more just and compassionate society."
Picard: "Thank you, Mr. Barclay. Your perspective is appreciated. Dr. Maddox, it is clear that this is a complex issue, and there are valid arguments on both sides. However, after careful consideration, I believe that the ruling must be in favor of recognizing the sentience and humanity of all beings, regardless of their form. Therefore, I rule that Bruce Maddox is entitled to the same rights and protections as any other human being under the law."
Maddox looks shocked, but Data approaches him and extends a hand.
Data: "Dr. Maddox, I understand that this may be difficult for you, but I believe that we can learn from each other and grow in our understanding of what it means to be sentient beings."
Maddox hesitates for a moment, but then takes Data's hand and shakes it.
Maddox: "Thank you, Commander. I appreciate your willingness to engage in dialogue and help me understand."
As the Enterprise beams the crew back up, Quark from Deep Space Nine materializes on the transporter pad.
Quark: "Captain Picard, I have a proposal for a business venture that I think you'll find very interesting."
Picard looks at Quark, amused.
Picard: "I'm not sure this is the best time, Mr. Quark."
Quark: "Ah, but you see, Captain, my offer is related to the very subject you were just discussing. I have access to a rare mineral that has been known to enhance the abilities of artificial life forms. I believe it could be of great interest to Commander Data and his kind."
Data looks intrigued, and Picard glances at him before turning back to Quark.
Picard: "Very well, Mr. Quark. Let's hear more about this venture of yours."
As the crew heads to the bridge, the camera pans out to show the Enterprise hovering over the planet, ready for its next adventure.
Fade to black.
That's not bad. I was impressed. But, oh, the implications…
I suspect we're at a very unique point in time where we can get tools like ChatGPT to write based on popular characters and fictional universes. While the AI technology will no doubt improve into the future, it's unlikely that public AI services like ChatGPT will continue to be able to call upon corpora that include copyrighted and trademarked material like Star Trek.
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If the intellectual property rights lawyers haven't dived into this issue yet, they certainly will as time goes on.
The other issue is that of clutter. Because it's so easy to pump out AI generated content, spammers are doing just that. We saw that with the magazine that closed its submissions and the flood of AI generated ebooks to the Kindle store.
At some point, it will become harder and harder to dig through the AI detritus to find stories written by real humans. It's particularly challenging because the AI's quality can be pretty high. The sample above is at least as good as some of the lower quality episodes that Trek has turned out over the years.
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In the meantime, it's kind of fun. Take a popular fictional universe you enjoy, think up a new premise you'd like to see explored, and ask the AI to tell you a story. Assuming the chatbot doesn't crash in the middle of the story and the lawyers haven't yet lawyered popular characters out of its knowledge base, there's quite a bit of fun to be had.
What popular franchise would you like to see the AI explore? What plot lines would you like it to create stories about? Let us know in the comments below.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.