What is ChatGPT, Anyway?

There's been a lot of buzz concerning ChatGPT, but what is it—in layman’s terms—and how will it affect the daily life of the average Canadian? Tech expert Marc Saltzman breaks it down.

If all this talk about ChatGPT has left you with a confused look on your face, you’re not alone. After all, it could be the biggest innovation we’ve seen in the world of tech over the past decade or so—and quite frankly, it may change every other industry, too, including how we learn, work, shop and create.

What is ChatGPT?

Launched in late November 2022 by the San Francisco-based OpenAI—but already used by more than 100-million people by January 2023—ChatGPT is a “generative A.I.” (artificial intelligence) computer program you can chat with online.

That is, type in a question or comment, and within a second, ChatGPT will begin interacting with you in a human-like manner. To try it for yourself, you can create an account and access ChatGPT for free here.

Unlike your Google or Alexa smart speaker, this is conversational A.I., so you can go back and forth with ChatGPT (via text, not voice—for now) as if you were interacting with a real person. This interaction is made possible through ChatGPT’s “natural language processing”: extensive training on a dataset of human language, pulled from several million books, documents, news articles, scientific journals, and the web (mostly Wikipedia). The result? ChatGPT not only understands what you’re typing, but responds quickly, articulately, and (mostly) accurately.

This is where things get exciting—and a little scary, too.

What Can ChatGPT Do?

Before we talk about some issues with the technology, a few practical things you can do with ChatGPT:

It can write for you

Tell ChatGPT what you’re writing about and it will generate the content, whether it’s a speech for your best friend’s wedding, a news article (yes, journalists like yours truly might be concerned), a school essay, a poem, or a song, complete with accompanying chords to play on piano or guitar.

With essays, you can specify the length (100 words? A thousand?), and even the particular style. I asked ChatGPT to explain quantum computing as Homer Simpson, for example, and it kicked off with the following:

Okay, so imagine you’re Homer Simpson, right? And you’ve got a donut, and you want to eat it. But instead of just taking a bite like a regular person, you decide to take a bite out of every possible combination of the donut at the same time. That’s kind of like what quantum computing does! It uses these tiny, tiny particles called “quantum bits” or “qubits” instead of regular bits like in your computer. And because of the weird rules of quantum physics, these qubits can exist in multiple states at the same time.

It can provide professional support

ChatGPT can be used in several ways to advance your career. If you’re looking for employment, ChatGPT can help you with the job search and interview prep, and even provide career advice. Considering a side hustle? Ask ChatGPT to create a business plan, and suggest some good names for you to use. (When I told ChatGPT I had an idea for an app that lets people buy and sell second-hand tech, it spat out seven good app names, each with a brief description!) If you’re prepping a presentation to deliver to your colleagues, ChatGPT can summarize research for you, including entire reports, so you look like a rockstar in the boardroom. And if you’re late for work one day, just ask ChatGPT to write a good email apology to the boss.

Learn another language, even programming code

Travelling to Europe this summer? Give ChatGPT the phrases you want to learn to get around, and it can translate them into nearly 100 different languages—instantaneously.

And much more

There have been many published instances of ChatGPT being used for relationship advice, assisting with travel plans (“If I have three days in Quebec City, what should I do?”), and creating a five-course meal for vegetarian guests, just to name a few.

Concerns Over ChatGPT and Other “Generative A.I.” Tools

Like any brand-new technology, there are legitimate concerns over “automation” replacing human jobs, whether it’s A.I., robots or autonomous vehicles. Educators are understandably concerned about plagiarism among students. And while it’s improving—ChatGPT 4 (launched in March) is more accurate than its predecessor, ChatGPT 3.5— there are still some inaccuracies.

As reported by CNBC, ChatGPT incorrectly analyzed earnings reports for Lululemon. It also once said I was a television actor. I’m on television, yes, but as a technology analyst.

Tech experts say ChatGPT makes mistakes due to conflicting information in its vast database, but will be corrected over time (sort of like how a communal platform like Wikipedia gets more accurate the more people use and edit it). Also note, the previous version of ChatGPT was limited to info up until 2021 (therefore, it didn’t know anything about the Russian-Ukrainian war, for instance), but has since been updated with ChatGPT 4.

South of the border, some Republicans claim ChatGPT has an anti-conservative bias, citing its alleged refusal to write poem about Donald Trump’s “positive attributes.”

Some tech luminaries, including Elon Musk, have suggested A.I. advancements are happening too quickly, and should be paused until they can be better understood and regulated. In April, ChatGPT was banned in Italy, due to concerns regarding its possible negative impact on society.

For the time being, I consider ChatGPT a tool, and a fascinating one at that. Like any innovation, it could be used or abused by the humans who rely on it.

Woman on laptop with phoneDean Drobot / Shutterstock.com

Where Does ChatGPT Go From Here?

Microsoft, which invested $10 billion USD into OpenAI in February, is weaving ChatGPT capabilities into its Bing search engine, just as Google is readying its answer to ChatGPT, called Bard.

Soon, Canadians can expect smart A.I. to help with online searches, such as cleverly summarizing the information you’re looking for (without requiring you to visit websites appearing in the search results), allowing you to converse with the platform like a person, and creating A.I.-generated imagery, such as requesting a photo of “a woman on the street, talking on her smartphone” that you may want to use on your website. Cool, no?

As for the existing ChatGPT, there is a paid version, too, dubbed ChatGPT Pro. For around $20 a month, Pro includes extra features, access to the chatbot even during peak usage periods, faster response times, and early access to improvements.

Based in Toronto, Marc Saltzman has been “breaking down geek speak into street speak” for more than 25 years. Follow Marc on Twitter for his “Tech Tip of the Day” posts, or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast.

Next, find out how Canada’s 3G network shutdown could affect you.