Thursday 9 February 2023

Pandas in the body stream — Adventures in AI (Anne Rooney)

What happens when you ask AI to write a story?


There's a lot of chat about ChatGPT at the moment, and a good deal of panic among writers A-eyeing up the possbility of being replaced in their publishers' affections (oxymoron alert!) by something that writes totally for free rather than nearly for free. So I set ChatGPT a little asssignment. And then critiqued its attempt. (Incidentally, this blog also shows why you don't want me to critique your story.)

Don't worry if you can't read the text in the picture, it's here. (ChatGPT chose to use black on red, which any AI worth its salt should know excludes a number of colour-blind and dyslexic readers.) The prompt was 'Write a story about a panda for 5 year olds':

Once upon a time, in a beautiful forest, there lived a panda named Poppy. Poppy was a cute and cuddly panda with black and white fur who loved to play and eat bamboo.

One day, while playing with her friends, Poppy noticed that there were no more bamboo leaves left on the nearby bushes. She asked her friends where all the bamboo had gone, but they didn’t know either. Poppy decided to go on an adventure to find more bamboo

She travelled through the forest, over hills and valleys, until

Error in body stream

OK... Let's take it a step at a time.

Once upon a time…

Come on, are you serious? This is 2023, not 1723.

in a beautiful forest

Banal. 'Beautiful' adds nothing here except trying to make the scene cosy and the line longer. How was it beautiful? Tell us something about the forest. What even is a ‘beautiful forest’? One covered in glitter? One with a bow in its hair or trout lips?

there lived a panda named Poppy

Where to start? Poppy. Pandas live in China. Poppy is not a Chinese name. Please change for reasons of cultural sensitivity. ‘There lived a’ isn’t an engaging active construction. Why isn't the panda the object of the sentence?

This first sentence is better phrased as ‘A panda called Poppy lived in a beautiful forest.’ Now you can see how banal it is immediately, but at least it’s easier for a child to understand. It’s not that we don’t want children to enjoy language or read anything slightly challenging — we do. It’s that we want them to enjoy language used creatively to good effect. This first sentence is obfuscating with the sole intention of emulating the syntax of what the AI perceives to be a children’s story. Nil points. We don't even need to say Poppy is a panda as that's clear from the picture. So far, we could just have a picture of the panda in the forest with the annottion 'Poppy' and an arrow.

Poppy was a cute and cuddly panda

By whose reckoning? Have you seen the claws on a panda? Cuddle at your own risk. Not sure AIs can cuddle anyway. Further, these are attributes of the person(/AI) perceiving the panda. These attributes are constructed by the way we perceive and interact with the panda and are not innate to pandahood.

with black and white fur

As opposed to what? All those peacock-patterned pandas? Also, don’t state things that will be clear in the artwork. You’re wasting your word count and the child’s effort to read the words. Remember, the child is an emergent reader. They might struggle over every word. Make every word worthwhile.

who loved to play and eat bamboo

So, basically, who liked being a panda? Because a panda that doesn’t eat bamboo is soon an ex-panda. Would you write ‘Poppy was a child who loved to eat food’?

This first paragraph has no action; it’s scene setting. We don’t generally do that in picture books. We start with action and the scene emerges. A five-year-old doesn’t need your info dump. Keep it in your head and use it to inform the story as it unravels. Oh, AIs don’t have a head. Sorry, forgot. And also there's virtually no info in this dump; it's a fluff dump.

One day, while playing with her friends,

Banal but harmless. At least it’s moved into some action. You’d be more likely to find this pedestrian stuff in an early chapter book, though. What's she playing? Croquet? Cluedo?

Poppy noticed that there were no more bamboo leaves left on the nearby bushes

What, she just noticed she was going to starve and it was mildly interesting? Or perhaps there were no bamboo leaves on the nearby bushes because bamboo isn’t a bush so there will never, ever be bamboo leaves on the nearby bushes. Bamboo is a type of grass. It does not grow like a bush. It grows with long, unbifurcated stems. But none ‘left’, which suggests there were previously bamboo leaves on the bushes, so perhaps she lives in a genetically-engineered panda-preservation park or an alternative universe? Maybe it’s about to get interesting. God knows, it could do with it.

She asked her friends where all the bamboo had gone, but they didn’t know either

So they aren’t party to this Trueman-show-for-pandas set up, then. But happily frolicking in the face of certain famine because they’re dumber than an AI?

Poppy decided to go on an adventure to find more bamboo

It would be better just to go and look for some bamboo. She’s only deciding, not doing something. We like physical activity in picture books, not mental activity of the vague-intention variety. Deciding to go on an adventure is a pretty hit-and-miss approach to dealing with imminent starvation. I’d say you can’t really decide to have an adventure anyway. You can put yourself in the way of adventure, but pace Malory, you have to ‘accepte the adventur that Godde woll ordeyn’ for you. That might be a good deal more exciting than finding a bamboo plantation. But perhaps less useful as a solution to the problem of hunger.

She travelled through the forest, over hills and valleys, until

Until thankfully the AI crashed. Or maybe she found the adventure, and it involved a panda-eating monster. Hooray! Something innovative at last! Maybe the AI does have a grip and it’s deliberately playing with the tired conventions* to lull us into a misplaced sense of security before…

Error in body stream

No. Before it crashes because its story goes nowhere. We’ve all been there. Don’t worry, AI. The traditional advice is to keep writing and you’ll improve. Maybe. But at least you’ll be occupied. And next time, don't keep using the same sentence structure: bla bla, subordinate clause, bla bla

What does this story say? A panda couldn’t find any bamboo so looked somewhere else. Is your child going to be interested in this story? 

Now, it's only fair to let the student respond to feedback or have another go, so I posted ChatGPT's story back to it with a request for a critique. It noticed the story wasn't finished, completed it and then acurately assessed that its story was shite:

Here's the ending:

...she finally came to a clearing where she saw a group of animals who were hoarding all the bamboo for themselves. Poppy approached them and asked if she could have some of the bamboo to feed her family and friends.

The animals refused and told Poppy that there was not enough bamboo for everyone and that they needed to protect their own supply. Poppy tried to reason with them and explain that they were all part of the same forest community and should share resources. But the animals would not listen.

Determined to find a solution, Poppy decided to plant her own bamboo garden. She worked hard, planting and nurturing the bamboo shoots until they grew into a lush forest of their own. Poppy invited all the animals to come and share in the bounty of her garden.

The animals were amazed at Poppy's kindness and hard work, and soon realized that by working together and sharing resources, they could all live in harmony. From that day on, Poppy became known as the "Bamboo Keeper" and was loved and respected by all the animals in the forest.

I'm not going through all this in the same vein, but you can see at a glance it's modelled on those (usually American) worthy, moral-laden attempts that appeal to (some) parents more than to children. It's lost the concept of language for a five-year-old, too.

And this is what it thinks of its own story:

This story has a good message of sharing and cooperation, but it could benefit from a bit more detail and character development. For example, what did Poppy go through on her journey to find the clearing? What challenges did she face and how did she overcome them? What made the animals finally see the value in sharing resources? Adding these details would help to flesh out the story and make it more engaging for the reader.

Its critique is as bad as its story. How about a glance at the larger picture. WTF is this story about? Which 'forest animals' are hoarding bamboo? In China, the only bamboo-eating mammals are giant panda, red panda and bamboo rat. (And how can it be a clearing if it's full of bamboo? That's a challenge for the illustrator.)

*If you want something that plays with tired conventions, Jon Scieszkahas already done it a lot better in Squids Will Be Squids, 2000.

Anne Rooney

 Out now:

Baby Polar Bear, illustrated by Qu Lan, Oxford University Press, 2022 



Pippa Goodhart said...

Well, that was fun!

Lynne Benton said...

For a 5 year-old??? A 5 year-old AI maybe. Great critique, Anne!

Polly said...

It's like a story written by a 5-year old, not for one! I run kids' writing contests occasionally, and also have proof of my own early writing prowess in several such stories! As someone whose profession (librarian) was going to be replaced by technology before I even started it (and we're busier than ever), I'd take such worries with a grain of salt, although I wouldn't put it past publishing to try to pay you all even less and charge us even more with AI-generated books (I don't know how the latter would work, but I bet they could make it work). Sorry, I'm annoyed about e-book prices, again.

millennialbonus said...

ChatGPT never ceases to amaze me, but even the best have their moments. Looks like an error slipped through the body stream this time.
Chatgpt Error in Body Stream