Financial TimesFinancial Times

Why chatbots are bound to spout bullshit

By Tim Harford

10 Feb 2023 · 4 min read

Editor's Note

The FT's Tim Harford claims a new generation of chatbots are poised to generate bullshit on an undreamt-of scale. The problem, he says, is that these tools don't deal in the truth but in plausibility.

Much has changed since 1986, when the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an essay in an obscure journal, Raritan, titled “On Bullshit”. Yet the essay, later republished as a slim bestseller, remains unnervingly relevant.

Frankfurt’s brilliant insight was that bullshit lies outside the realm of truth and lies. A liar cares about the truth and wishes to obscure it. A bullshitter is indifferent to whether his statements are true: “He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” Typically for a 20th-century writer, Frankfurt described the bullshitter as “he” rather than “she” or “they”. But now it’s 2023, we may have to refer to the bullshitter as “it” — because a new generation of chatbots are poised to generate bullshit on an undreamt-of scale.

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