Amazing (but True?)

“ChatGPT is on everyone’s mind right now,” John Jackson told me in March during an interview about the PIK Professor and Annenberg School dean becoming Penn’s 31st provost on June 1 [“Gazetteer,” page 18]. It has certainly been on the mind of senior editor Trey Popp, with the result being this issue’s cover story, “Alien Minds, Immaculate Bullshit, Outstanding Questions.”

The title conveys the complexity, uncertainty, and at times sheer weirdness involved in the ongoing speculation over how the introduction of ChatGPT and other large language models—able to answer questions and produce text on any subject under the internet, among other magical properties—may affect college campuses and the wider world.

Trey is no stranger to illuminating subjects that many otherwise intelligent people (by which I mean me) have a hard time wrapping their minds around. (See, for example, “Blockchain Fever” in the Jul|Aug 2018 issue.) For the present piece, he has combined his own investigations, both serious and silly, into the technology’s immense capabilities and profound limitations (a propensity to lie, for one, which is where the bullshit comes in) with the insights of Penn faculty in disciplines from computer science to English as well as student reactions.

For publication at least, the students seem mostly wary of slipping into some form of academic misconduct. Their teachers express both enthusiasm and caution, though in widely varying proportions. I suppose only time will tell what the correct view is (which is just the kind of flat, cliched language that Trey says is another weakness of ChatGPT).

In contrast to the mind-bending abstractions of artificial intelligence, you can practically taste the dust in Beebe Bahrami Gr’95’s feature article, “An Archaeologist Walks into a Bar …” It opens with a vivid description of the painstaking, in-the-trenches (literally) work of excavation at the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash, where a 4,700-year-old structure that housed the world’s oldest tavern was uncovered this past fall in a project led by Penn archaeologist Holly Pittman.

Excavations have been going on at Lagash since the late 1960s, though with lengthy suspensions along the way because of wars and other turmoil in Iraq, where the site is located about midway between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. While earlier digs focused on religious and ruling elites, the current project has been centered on the lives of craftspeople and other ordinary inhabitants. There’s still a lot more to be learned in further excavations at Lagash, Pittman told Beebe, as well as about the mysterious fate of the tavern, which seems to have been simply abandoned one day, food still on the shelves and beer in the zeer (a kind of ancient cooler). Maybe ChatGPT could come up with something.

Also in this issue, associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03 profiles entrepreneur, venture capitalist, coach, and court lifer Seth Berger C’89 WG’93 in “Basketball In His Blood.” A point guard of less-than-Division-I skills but unbounded competitiveness, in the 1990s Berger cofounded the sports apparel company AND1, famed for its trash-talking T-shirts, and after selling the company remade himself as a highly successful basketball coach at the Westtown School in suburban Philadelphia, all while raising three sons with his wife Christelle Williams Berger W’89 and serving as a second father and guardian to five Nigerian brothers who attended the school.

Dave also has a piece in “Alumni Profiles” marking the recent death of Kevin Neary C’04, about whom he wrote a moving feature-length profile 10 years ago as a freelancer for the magazine [“Hope Is Part of the Plan,” Jul|Aug 2013]. Our condolences to Kevin Neary’s family and friends on their loss.

—John Prendergast C’80

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