Los Angeles Times

AI writing bot is a plagiarist and a dummy

- MICHAEL HILTZIK Hiltzik writes a blog on latimes.com. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter @hiltzikm or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

We’ve all been trained by decades of science fiction to think of artificial intelligen­ce as a threat to our working futures. The idea is: If an AI robot can do a job as well as a human — cheaper and with less interperso­nal unruliness — who needs the human?

The technology news site CNET tried to answer that question, quietly, even secretly. For months, the site employed an AI engine to write articles for its CNET Money personal finance page. The articles covered such topics as “What is compound interest?” and “What happens when you bounce a check?”

At first glance and to financial novices, the articles seemed cogent and informativ­e. CNET continued the practice until early this month, when it was outed by the website Futurism.

As Futurism determined, the bot-written articles have major limitation­s. For one thing, many are bristling with errors. For another, many are rife with plagiarism — in some cases from CNET itself or its sister websites.

Futurism’s Jon Christian put the error issue bluntly in an article stating that the problem with CNET’s article-writing AI is that “it’s kind of a moron.” Christian followed up with an article finding numerous cases ranging “from verbatim copying to moderate edits to significan­t rephrasing­s, all without properly crediting the original.”

This level of misbehavio­r would get a human student expelled or a journalist fired.

We’ve written before about the unapprecia­ted limits of new technologi­es, especially those that look almost magical, such as artificial intelligen­ce applicatio­ns.

To quote Rodney Brooks, the robotics and AI scientist and entreprene­ur I wrote about last week, “There is a veritable cottage industry on social media with two sides; one gushes over virtuoso performanc­es of these systems, perhaps cherry-picked, and the other shows how incompeten­t they are at very simple things, again cherry-picked. The problem is that as a user you don’t know in advance what you are going to get.”

That brings us back to CNET’s article-writing bot. CNET hasn’t identified the specific AI applicatio­n it was using, though the timing suggests that it isn’t ChatGPT, the AI language generator that has created a major stir among technologi­sts and concerns among teachers because of its apparent ability to produce written works that can be hard to distinguis­h as nonhuman.

CNET didn’t make the AI contributi­on to its articles especially evident, appending only a smallprint line reading, “This article was assisted by an AI engine and reviewed, factchecke­d and edited by our editorial staff.” The more than 70 articles were attributed to “CNET Money Staff.” Since Futurism’s disclosure, the byline has been changed to simply “CNET Money.”

Last week, according to the Verge, CNET executives told staff members that the site would pause publicatio­n of the AI-generated material for the moment.

As Futurism’s Christian establishe­d, the errors in the bot’s articles ranged from fundamenta­l misdefinit­ions of financial terms to unwarrante­d oversimpli­fications.

In the article about compound interest, the CNET bot originally wrote, “if you deposit $10,000 into a savings account that earns 3% interest compoundin­g annually, you’ll earn $10,300 at the end of the first year.”

That’s wrong — the annual earnings would be only $300. The article has since been corrected to read that “you’ll earn $300 which, added to the principal amount, you would have $10,300 at the end of the first year.”

The bot also initially described interest payments on a $25,000 auto loan at 4% interest as “a flat $1,000 ... per year.” It’s payments on auto loans, like mortgages, that are fixed — interest is charged only on outstandin­g balances, which shrink as payments are made. Even on a oneyear auto loan at 4%, interest will come to only $937. For longer-term loans, the total interest paid falls every year.

CNET corrected that too, along with five other errors in the same article. Put it all together, and the website’s assertion that its AI bot was being “factchecke­d and edited by our editorial staff ” begins to look a little thin.

The bot’s plagiarism is more striking and provides an important clue to how the program worked. Christian found that the bot appeared to have replicated text from sources including Forbes, the Balance and Investoped­ia, which all occupy the same field of personal financial advice as CNET Money.

In those cases, the bot utilized similar concealmen­t techniques as human plagiarist­s, such as minor rephrasing­s and word swaps. In at least one case, the bot plagiarize­d from Bankrate, a sister publicatio­n of CNET.

None of this is especially surprising because one key to language bots’ function is their access to a huge volume of human-generated prose and verse.

They may be good at finding patterns in the source material that they can replicate, but at this stage of AI developmen­t they’re still picking human brains.

The impressive coherence and cogency of the output of these programs, up to and including ChatGPT, appears to have more to do with their ability to select from human-generated raw material than any ability to develop new concepts and express them.

Indeed, “a close examinatio­n of the work produced by CNET’s AI makes it seem less like a sophistica­ted text generator and more like an automated plagiarism machine, casually pumping out pilfered work,” Christian wrote.

Where we stand on the continuum between robot generated incoherenc­e and genuinely creative expression is hard to determine. Jeff Schatten, a professor at Washington and Lee University, wrote in an article in September that the most sophistica­ted language bot at the time, known as GPT-3, had obvious limitation­s.

“It stumbles over complex writing tasks,” he wrote. “It cannot craft a novel or even a decent short story. Its attempts at scholarly writing ... are laughable. But how long before the capability is there? Six months ago, GPT-3 struggled with rudimentar­y queries, and today it can write a reasonable blog post discussing ‘ways an employee can get a promotion from a reluctant boss.’ ”

It’s likely that those needing to judge written work, such as teachers, may find it ever-harder to distinguis­h AI-produced material from human outputs. One professor recently reported catching a student submitting a bot-written paper the old-fashioned way — it was too good.

Over time, confusion about whether something is bot- or human-produced may depend not on the capabiliti­es of the bot, but those of the humans in charge.

 ?? Jenny Kane Associated Press ?? WHOSE HANDS are really on the keyboard? For months, CNET used an AI engine to write articles for its CNET Money page. But the Futurism site found the bot-written articles were rife with errors and plagiarism.
Jenny Kane Associated Press WHOSE HANDS are really on the keyboard? For months, CNET used an AI engine to write articles for its CNET Money page. But the Futurism site found the bot-written articles were rife with errors and plagiarism.
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