ChatGPT, friend or foe?

“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” Luke 6:45a (NIV).

Any tool, any advancement, almost anything that can be used for good can be twisted…and like all technological innovations, there is both excitement for what the future holds and trepidation to what this means for the future of humanity.

Technological innovation has had many momentous shifts which seem to push our world into unique and extraordinary eras. Some of the shifts that come to mind include the printing press, the assembly line, the radio, the introduction of television, the advent of satellites, sending astronauts to the moon, the personal computer, the internet, and now artificial intelligence or AI.

Depending on the advancement, the positive often drowns out the negative and we all realize that the world is probably better off because of the innovation. Today, I cannot imagine that anyone would have thought negatively about the printing press in its genesis—but that is probably wishful thinking. But, of course, the converse, where there is more dread than praise for an innovation, can also be true. I remember watching the movie, “October Sky,” and how palpable the fear was over the first satellite launched in space by the Russians—Sputnik. Was it spying on us? What was its intent? The dread was real.

Unless you haven’t read the news lately, it is hard to get away from the latest technological innovation: The AI darling, ChatGPT. And if you haven’t already created an account to access ChatGPT (actually, you probably will in the very near future.

I have spent a minimal amount of time on both DALL-E 2, the image generating AI and ChatGPT, the text-based AI (both produced by openai) just to see what all the hubbub is about. I have been both amazed and slightly horrified by the possibilities presented in both platforms. The basic description for ChatGPT, the text-based AI technology, is that you can ask it any question and because it has been trained over a great majority of the known written word in the world today, and the AI model has some relation to how our brains work, it can respond with a cogent answer that is unique and seems to be coming from a modest to high level of knowledge in the subject matter of the question.

So, what does any of this have to do with GIS technology? Well, this isn’t a treatise on how to use ChatGPT to help in your next GIS project, but more about my initial thoughts and observations on this “emerging” technology (I’m not sure this is truly text-based AI’s birthday, just more that it is now getting widespread media attention, so, in that sense, it is emerging).

As far as I can tell, ChatGPT is an amazingly way to write code such as Python. For example, I have asked ChatGPT to “stub-out” the python code for extracting an attachment from an email and reading it into a text file. I have also asked it to write code that would strip the last 5 characters from image files on our intranet that are constantly changing so I could use those characters in a replacement token. The code for both of these examples was completed by ChatGPT in seconds and was useful and well documented by in-line comments.

Those are two practical examples, but what about some other ideas that I have not tried but seem useful and relevant like, “write a detailed geospatial strategy for a local government with a 1 year plan, 3 year plan and a 5 year plan.” Or, “produce an elevator pitch for using GIS to increase transportation logistics effectiveness.” One amazing thing about ChatGPT is that it “remembers” context and so you can easily write follow-up questions, like, “give a more detailed plan for the 1st year of the geospatial strategy with a list of steps and a timeline.” I have tried similar lines of questioning and been amazed at the ability of the AI to be concise, accurate, and mainly excellent in its answers.

But, like any technological advance, this one has its dark side. I don’t feel the need to describe examples of it’s potential for evil. Just read any type of media about ChatGPT and you will likely find enough to give you pause. The thing I find chilling about ChatGPT is that it has no soul—no conscience to be pricked when it goes off the rails. It’s just repeating words obtained from the knowledge of man—which, by-the-way, includes spiritual insights and the entire Bible. So, to ask ChatGPT about things like the meaning of life, is, well, meaningless. In my mind, it is a soulless, emotionless, non-sentient technological marvel. Still, in the coming days there will be much talk about the question, “Is it human?” I for one have to answer a definitive, “no.” When God breathed the breath of His Spirit into us, he finalized making us into His image and so began the story of humanity. ChatGPT is definitely not that. Yet, the humanity question that will probably arise in the wake of ChatGPT is one that I believe we, as Christian’s, need to take head-on. It is even an opening for us to again stand for the beauty of what makes us unique in all of creation—that we are created in God’s image.

In my opinion, there is a blessing to be gained from ChatGPT and, of course, a curse. The simple blessing is that we can use it as a practical tool for some of our daily tasks; more of a support than a replacement for what many of us tackle in our day-to-day jobs. But, if this societal conversation about ChatGPT goes deeper into the essence of humanity, we can also use it to begin again that conversation that starts with, “you are special because you are created in the likeness of God…” May God use us as a blessing, even as we wrestle with something as potent as questions about ChatGPT’s relation to humanity and may we stand up against the darkness we know can be produced when man’s knowledge is combined with evil intent. ChatGPT is not in itself evil, but it certainly can be led down that path. Let’s together be leaders in this and use it for good—even the good that can come from deep spiritual conversations about the application of technology.