Is it Suzanne, Bob or ChatGPT?

Those old enough to remember the 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, will remember HAL 9000, as the spaceship’s artificially intelligent computer, who, with a mind of his own, turns against the crew when they believe his calculations are wrong, regarding their journey to Jupiter. The name HAL came from Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer.  Heuristic is a technique designed for solving problems more quickly than humans typically can.  As I recall, HAL spoke in a very soft, calming, conversational manner, but ends up killing one of the astronauts who was trying to disconnect it.  It was pointed out at the time that the letters HAL are just one letter off the computer giant of the day, IBM.

Enter ChatGPT.  For those unfamiliar with ChatGPT, here’s a quick tutorial.  First, it is a ‘chatbot’ (a software application used to conduct online conversations via text or text-to-speech in lieu of providing direct contact with live humans), developed by Open AI and Introduced at the end of last year.  ChatGPT (which stands for Chat, well, you know what chatting is, the GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is taking the Artificial Intelligence world by storm with its ability to do a multitude of things.

The core function of a chatbot is to mimic a human conversationalist; for example, ChatGPT can write and debug computer programs, compose music, teleplays or fairy tales, and write poetry and song lyrics.  Conveniently, it can, for a college student, answer test questions and write essays – yes, write essays!!

Just last week, I had the opportunity to see ChatGPT in action.  A friend of mine asked ChatGPT to write a Shakespearean sonnet for his wife on Valentine’s Day – it took about a minute and, Voila!!  The sonnet sounded like the Bard himself had just penned a special 14-line poem to his wife.  I was amazed!!  I learned that it could remember things you have said to it in the past and is capable of correcting itself when wrong.

As I dug deeper into the applications of ChatGPT, I found just the type of thing someone like me might ask of ChatGPT.  Here’s the example I found:

“Write a biblical verse in the style of the King James bible explaining how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR.”

“And the Lord spoke unto him, saying, “Fear not, my child, for I shall guide thy hand and show thee the way.  Take thy butter knife, and carefully insert it between the sandwich and the VCR, and gently pry them apart.  And with patience and perseverance, the sandwich shall be removed, and they VCR shall be saved”

And the man did as the Lord commanded, and lo and behold, the sandwich was removed from the VCR, and the man was saved.

And the Lord said, “Verily I say unto thee, seek not to put thy peanut butter sandwich in thy VCR, for it is not a suitable place for such things.  Rather, keep thy sandwiches in they refrigerator or on thy plate, where they belongeth.”

So, you see how an everyday problem like this, that I’m sure you’ve encountered, can be solved with the help of ChatGPT!  If you’re wondering if students now don’t have to write essays, or anything for that matter, I’ve been told that there is a way to detect whether something is written by a human or by ChatGPT.  But I’m sure it won’t take long before they figure out how to ‘fix’ that.

But, it’s not all sunshine and lollypops.  Like most computers, it goes wacky once in a while.  ChatGPT often fails at basic math, it sometimes can’t answer a simple logic question, and it can mix fact and fiction (Sounds very human!).  It can also give incorrect, and often damaging, medical advice.  And, because it is programed by humans and humans can be biased, ChatGPT can put forth biased information.

You’ve probably guessed the answer to the question in the headline; neither ChapGPT nor Suzanne, could have written something so banal.

HAL, by any other name, is here, amazing . . . and dangerous!



Prairie Home Companions

by Bob Sparrow


Barney’s Jersey Farm

Pardon me if I seem a little jet-lagged, but last week my travels took me back in time to southern Minnesota.  It’s not that southern Minnesota is behind the times, far from it, it’s just that the mid-west, and particularly Minnesota and particularly this family, embodies good old mid-western values that we on the coasts just don’t see much of anymore.  It was refreshing to be surrounded by people who fervently hang on to the importance of family. The occasion was the 90th birthday of Warren Barnes, my father-in-law, who admitted that he wasn’t going to be 90 until December, but December is not a time to ask people to come to Minnesota – that’s ‘hibernating’ season.  So the party was held last week, when according to Warren he was “prettin’ear 90”.

While it was Warren’s birthday celebration, it was really a tribute to both Warren and wife, Phyllis, who is a young 87, for the wonderful life they’ve led and the incredible families that were created out of their marriage in 1945. The birthday celebration was held on Saturday in RochesterMN, but the preliminary activities on Friday took us south on a tour of the Barnes’ hometown, Canton, MN.  The photos below show 1) the parking lot of the Canton Coffee Shop; yes it is still a one-horse town, 2)  a farmer driving the ‘company car’ through Lanesboro, and 3) traffic at Amish rush hour.  We visited the old family spread and one could still barely make out the words ‘Barney’s Jersey Farm’ on the side of the barn.

1. horse  2.  Lansboro  3. Amish


Cobb Residence

That evening, dinner was at the bucolic residence of Gene & Denise Cobb (granddaughter); he a 25-year IBMer and she a math whiz teaching ‘Advance Placement’ classes at the local high school.  They bought 5 acres in the beautiful rolling hills outside of Rochester and built a house, planted fruit trees and a garden with almost every conceivable vegetable known to man, and some not known, at least to this man – like salsify; then added some chickens and goats and cats and a dog and probably by the time you’re reading this, who knows what species of flora and fauna have taken up residence?

PHC     The birthday event on Saturday mystically transported us to Lake Wobegon from A Prairie Home Companion’.  For those unfamiliar, A Prairie Home Companion is a radio program originating out of Minnesota that started in 1974 hosted by Garrison Keillor and featuring a variety of musical and comedic entertainment that typifies the mid-west.  The show can still be heard every Saturday on public radio.  Warren and Phyllis’s children, grand children and great grand children as well as in-laws and friends spoke and performed various acts from playing musical instruments, to singing and dancing, to a game of ‘Jeopardy’ based on the life and times of Warren.  But the emotional highlight of the event was the reuniting of ‘The Barnes Trio’.

barnes trio early

The Barnes Trio – back in the day

Barnes Trio

The Barnes Trio (Dale, Linda, Starlet) – reunited

Warren and Phyllis’s three children, Starlet (Barnes) Brummer, Dale Barnes and Linda (Barnes) Sparrow formed ‘The Barnes Trio’ and started singing together back on the farm when they were all in grade school; they were good enough to be sponsored by Purina Dog Chow and they performed all over the state from talent shows to county fairs.  This evening they sang ‘Daddy’s Hands to a very emotional crowd, particularly the guest of honor.


Phyllis & Warren Barnes

     Warren and Phyllis have truly been ‘prairie home companions’ for the last 68 years – a remarkable couple and a remarkable family.  Their response to all the festivities? “This has been the best day of our lives”.  Considering the number of good days in their collective lives, that’s  saying quite a lot.  Well-deserved!