Bismarck State's AI-Written Plays Show Potential, Flaws of ChatGPT

North Dakota colleges dealing with dramatic changes brought by artificial intelligence.

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Two performers are seated in the middle of the stage, shooting the breeze as they pretend to get ready for an upcoming performance.

“We never know what the future holds,” one actor laments to his friend. “I mean, they thought computers can’t write poetry or compose music, but now they can.”

“There are AI-generated characters in some places, but nothing can replace the magic of live performance,” the other performer replies.

This one-act, titled “Theatre Kids At The End of the World,” is one of 16 recently performed by Bismarck State College as part of “The AI Plays,” a production reflecting on recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and its implications for ordinary life.

The works are purposely self-referential and introspective, with the actors often playing the role of students, performers or both.

And the whole thing was written by ChatGPT, the famous chatbot by OpenAI.

ChatGPT is primarily a text tool; you tell it to write something, and it whips up an answer. Its ability to handle sophisticated instructions has attracted a level of attention unlike any AI before it.

A study by the Union Bank of Switzerland named ChatGPT the fastest-growing consumer app in history, Reuters reported in February.

Boosters of so-called generative AI point to its massive educational and creative potential. It can write prose and poetry. It can conjure up paintings. It can tell you where the nearest gas station is. It can write an essay summarizing the history of the Roman Empire. All in relatively short order, for free.

But that’s also inspired widespread anxiety, even existential fear, about the future of creative work.

The recent strikes by Hollywood writers and actors, for instance, were spurred in part by concerns that generative AI would sideline creative workers. Both successfully bargained for regulations on how the technology can be used by film and television producers.

In “The AI Plays,” students at Bismarck State College Theatre throw their two cents into the debate.

“I think we, as artists, need to get in front of this,” said Director Dean Bellin, associate professor of technical theater at the Bismarck State College.

The group decided to have ChatGPT write the scripts as an interesting way to show people just how far the technology has come.

He and his students wrote the general outline of each scene. They fed ChatGPT writing prompts based on their real feelings toward AI — from reverent, to skeptical, to indifferent.

Then, they performed the scripts completely unedited – quirks and all.

In one scene, a woman chopping vegetables bemoans the constant frustration of living in a world where technology is advancing so quickly. (ChatGPT did not feel it necessary to explain who the woman is or why she was chopping vegetables.)

“I have seen the rise and fall of Tamagotchi, lived through Y2K, and even managed to scan a QR code” — she pauses, still bent over her cutting board — “ … once.”

“At the rate we’re going, I’m afraid I’ll blink, and then my toaster is giving me life advice,” she continues.

Government oversight

Lawmakers in 2023 grappled with definitions, standards and regulation of artificial intelligence, and Congress weighed challenges for consumers, workers, campaigns, national security and more. Senators from both sides of the aisle agree there’s a need for government oversight. Legislators and officials in many states are studying the issue and weighing AI legislation in upcoming sessions.

The North Dakota Legislature is also on the bandwagon; this interim session, the Information Technology Committee is researching potential paths for AI investment and regulation.

At its next meeting on Dec. 14, lawmakers will hear from the Department of Public Instruction, the university system, the attorney general’s office and other groups about the future of AI in the state.

Earlier this year, the statehouse passed a law preventing AI from gaining human rights. (The law extends the same ban to animals, the environment, and inanimate objects.)

Sponsor Rep. Cole Christensen, R-Rogers, told fellow lawmakers during the session the legislation was intended “to define personhood and to retain its exclusive rights to human beings.”

Several acts explore the concept of AI sentience. In one scene, a medieval court goes on a witch hunt for a robot masquerading among them as a human. The village ultimately accepts the machine with open arms.

Even though the work it produces can be uncannily similar to human writing, tools like ChatGPT don’t think like people.

ChatGPT and other so-called “generative” AI — like DALL-E, which makes images — are trained on massive hordes of data that help them approximate human language, photography, art and so on.

But it’s only an approximation. When ChatGPT asked to write creatively, it’s often choppy, repetitive and lacking depth.

The dialogue became circular in several scenes of “The AI Plays,” with characters making the same two or three points over and over again until a scene ended.

Bellin said he and his students learned a lot about scriptwriting by studying where ChatGPT’s writing missed the mark.

Bismarck State College isn’t the first higher ed institution to experiment with AI theater.

This summer, students at University of Wollongong in Australia performed a three-act drama written by ChatGPT, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in June.

In that case, the performers may have been a little more involved in the writing process. The show’s director said he and his students had to tinker with the app quite a bit before it spit out something they liked.

Earthquakes in academia

There are plenty of other reasons why AI may be front-of-mind for colleges and universities — say, how it makes it easier for students to cheat on homework.

AI may not be good enough to write a flawless essay, but a student might be able to pass ChatGPT-generated work off as their own if they proofread it and introduce a few minor tweaks, Bellin said.

Many higher ed institutions have already adopted policies regulating AI. One survey published in June by UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — estimated that globally, about 13% of universities have issued official guidance on the technology.

For the moment, the North Dakota University System, of which Bismarck State College is a member, isn’t one of them.

Not that it isn’t giving the subject any attention.

In the wake of ChatGPT’s release, the university system convened a task force to help it navigate the many opportunities and obstacles AI presents to higher ed.

At a Dec. 7 State Board of Higher Education meeting, Chancellor Mark Hagerott urged the University System to invest in AI technology.

He pointed to a handful of other higher ed institutions scrambling to get ahead in what he likened to an “arms race.”

“We have to be able to adapt and move and change to the landscape that’s in front of us,” said Hagerott, who has a background in cyber security. “And we have to plan for the unknown.”

In 2020, the University of Florida hired 100 new faculty members to study artificial intelligence. The University of Albany announced this year it would set aside $200 million toward AI. It says it wants to integrate the technology in all of its academic programs. Meanwhile, Arizona State University formed a schoolwide community of practice this fall to figure out how to integrate AI into its classrooms.

“This is an earthquake,” Hagerott said.

North Dakota Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. North Dakota Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Amy Dalrymple for questions: info@northdakotamonitor.com. Follow North Dakota Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

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