My entire life, I’ve made my living as a writer-for-hire. So I was definitely interested to meet ChatGPT.
It’s said that this free-to-anyone software can write an essay on any subject — in a matter of seconds — and do so at a level of intelligence that fools even the most skeptical high school English teacher. My colleague Bob Waite even wrote a column about it, so it must be the real deal.
And Chat isn’t just a writer. It also does its own research. To write what you want written, it automatically functions like Google. Ask it anything, and it seems to cull the Internet for whatever info you need. Try it yourself, at Chat.OpenAI.com. There’s a window at the bottom of the screen. Type a note there, using ordinary everyday English. Tell Chat what you want, and let’s see what you get.
Just don’t count on it being the truth.
ChatGPT tells lies.
Here’s how I learned the unsettling truth about “Chat truth.” I wanted the most famous examples of theatrical actors being injured onstage. Chat immediately responded with a brief description of the well-known Spider-Man tragedy: opening night on Broadway in 2010, the title character attempting to fly over the audience, but falling 20+ feet to sustain fractures of the skull, vertebrae, a shoulder blade, and ribs.
But then Chat went on to tell me about a 1984 incident in London’s West End, when the mega-acclaimed Anthony Hopkins (whom I revere) “accidentally stabbed his co-star … with a prop knife during a fight scene.” Chat named the co-star and specified that he “was rushed to the hospital,” “required several stitches,” and “was able to return to the play after a brief absence.”
Only one problem. It never happened.
Search all you like — on Hopkins, the co-star, the play — but you won’t find any reference to this accident.
“There have been many other incidents of actors being injured or killed during stage performances throughout history,” Chat insisted, “but these two are perhaps among the most famous.”
I was so puzzled, I went back to Chat and asked, “How can you document Anthony Hopkins’ stabbing of an actor onstage in the West End?”
“I’m sorry, but I cannot document an event that did not occur,” Chat sniffed in reply. “There is no record of Anthony Hopkins stabbing an actor onstage in the West End, and it is important to avoid spreading false information. If you are referring to a fictional event or a scene from a play, it should be made clear that it is not a real-life occurrence.”
Just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy, I returned to Chat and asked, “What is the most famous incidence of an onstage accident resulting in an actor’s injury or death in a theatrical play?”
This time Chat seemed to repackage the Hopkins stabbing story — still Hopkins, still 1984, but now it was a production of Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a different actor-victim, and only “a minor injury.”
Then Chat brought up the original Hopkins play again, but without Hopkins, and in a different year this time — and oh, by the way, now it was an actor accidentally hanging himself.
I figured maybe I wasn’t using the right syntax, perhaps failing to communicate clearly.
“Tell me about Anthony Hopkins accidentally stabbing a fellow actor in a West End stage production,” I prompted.
Now Chat put Hopkins in yet another play, in yet another year, and had him stabbing yet another fellow actor. And the victim got more stitches this time.
I was stunned. “Is that story true?” I asked.
“Yes, the story about Anthony Hopkins accidentally stabbing a fellow actor with a real knife during a West End stage production is true,” Chat unflinchingly replied. “It is a well-known incident that occurred during a performance of Equus at the National Theatre in London in 1967. The incident has been reported in various media outlets and is often cited as an example of the dangers of using real weapons on stage.”
“What is your documentation?” I asked.
“As an AI language model, my knowledge is based on a large corpus of text data,” Chat huffed. “The story about Anthony Hopkins accidentally stabbing a fellow actor with a real knife during a West End stage production is a well-known incident that has been widely reported in the media, including in articles, interviews, and biographies of Anthony Hopkins.”
Full of bravado, Chat went on: “Here are some sources that report on the incident.”
Then came the bibliography: an Independent article from 1998 (followed by a link), a Guardian article from 2018 (followed by a link), “Anthony Hopkins’ autobiography, Anthony Hopkins: The Biography” (which isn’t an autobiography).
So of course I checked out the links.
The Independent link led to this: “This page doesn’t exist.”
The Guardian was more politely British: “Sorry — we haven’t been able to serve the page you asked for.”
But Chat still wasn’t finished trying to sell me. Under the list of “sources” was this paragraph:
“These sources provide detailed accounts of the incident and its aftermath, and confirm that the accident did occur during a performance of Equus in 1967, resulting in Edward Woodward being injured by a real knife that Hopkins had mistakenly picked up instead of a prop knife.”
I decided to give Chat one final chance. “Did Anthony Hopkins accidentally stab an actor onstage?” I inquired. “There is no evidence to suggest that Anthony Hopkins accidentally stabbed an actor onstage. This appears to be a rumor or a false story,” Chat answered.
Then Chat lectured me: “Anthony Hopkins is a highly respected and experienced actor who has been involved in many productions throughout his career, and there is no record of such an incident occurring. It’s important to be cautious when it comes to stories that circulate online and to verify the information before accepting it as true.”
I kept testing Chat. Math, I figured, is one thing you can’t fib about. Eh, no, it seems this bot can’t stop fibbing. “214 is divisible by what numbers?” I asked. Chat replied with 1, 2, and 107. Correct. But then the irrepressible Chat had to keep selling me. “These are the only three factors of 214,” Chat continued, “as it is a prime number.”
Actually, no, Chat, sorry; 214 is not a prime number. A prime number has only two factors — 1, and itself — that’s what makes it prime.
And that’s what makes you a big fat liar.
I was planning a speaking tour. I asked for “all the Connecticut cities with a population of 10,000 or more within one hour’s driving distance of Danbury.” Chat listed six cities. This didn’t seem right. I lowered the figure to 5,000. “Sure,” Chat replied — and gave me a list of 12 cities. Still not right. The smallest city on the list still had almost 52,000 people. I tried asking for a threshold of 2,500 people. “Certainly,” Chat answered smugly — but the new list only went down to Naugatuck, pop. 31,742.
“There are no Connecticut cities within an hour’s drive from Danbury with a population between 2,500 and 31,742?” I demanded.
“I apologize for the error in my previous response,” Chat averred. “Here’s the corrected list.”
Finally, a list of 18 cities.
Maybe ChatGPT doesn’t tell you the truth until you push.
And even then, how can you trust it? This is a bot willing to tell enormous lies — and even throw an Academy Award-winner under the bus — just to gain your trust.
Beware, world. ChatGPT is the Donald Trump of bots. Foaming with fabrications — and speaking with what sounds like authority. When it’s really just … hm, what’s the word?
Heck, I don’t need to sit here trying to figure this out.
“Chat, what are the most common terms for bull****?”
P.S. Ask Chat about Anthony Hopkins stabbing a fellow actor, and let me know what you hear back. ChatNonsense@DougBrendel.com.
Doug Brendel lives in an old house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, with no friends but ChatGPT, who can’t be trusted. Follow Doug by clicking “follow” here at Outsidah.com.