Tag Archives: Peace Corps – Gabon

Sibyl Says

A friend, whom I’ll refer to as Sibyl here (after the Ancient Greek prophetess), wrote to me recently to say she’d just read my Mali book, How to Make an African Quilt, and loved it. In fact, she raved.

So I, behaving like many of us desperate-for-reviews authors do, suggested she might, please-please-please, put some of her nice comments into a short Amazon review. “Reviews seem to matter a lot,” I sheepishly told her, “reviews help to keep a book alive.”

The next thing I knew, Sibyl sent me a review. I was knocked over by the speed in which she’d written it and how well it was written. I hadn’t known that Sibyl was such an amazing writer! It was several long paragraphs of rapturous praise. I had to thank her right away.

But wait! How had she gotten some of the basic facts so wrong? Did she really read the book? (Does anyone read carefully anymore? I ask myself a lot these days.) The review she sent me claimed (why? for sympathy, for added drama?) I was from “humble beginnings in rural America.” In fact, I’m from a middle-class family in suburban New Jersey. And I’ve never claimed otherwise. 

Another example: It said my economic development project was in the West African country of Senegal. In fact, it was in Ségou, Mali (another African country altogether), which is clearly stated in the book’s subtitle: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Ségou, Mali.

So I wrote to Sibyl as soon as I could, thanking her for doing the review and complimenting her on her impressive writing skills, but pointing out the various factual errors that should be fixed before she sent it off to Amazon.

She responded gaily: She hadn’t written the review at all! She’d gone to ChatGPT to save time. A.I. had turned out this long and glowing review of my book for her in less than five seconds, she told me, excited by this new technology.

She suggested I could even use A.I. to write my weekly blogposts from now on: Just download a number of my previous posts into it so it would learn my writing style, then give it a topic and it would produce a first draft for me, “in a matter of seconds,” she enthused, adding, “The power of A.I. is phenomenal!”

“A.I. can create content,” she explained, “but it cannot create ideas and original content.”


(stock photo)

Up to this point Artificial Intelligence had been something rather remote to me. A.I. was out there, creeping closer by the day, it’s true, but it hadn’t touched me personally. I hadn’t been following its trajectory. This recent experience with Sibyl dramatically changed that for me. Sibyl seemed to me to be foretelling the future for all of us writers: A.I. is taking over.

Suddenly I felt the way horse-cart makers must have felt watching the first Model-T Ford rolling down Main Street: out of a job, out of a purpose, outta luck. I envisioned five decades of applying my best efforts to my chosen profession going up in smoke. Being replaced by a machine.

When it comes to computer technology, for me it always comes back to this indelible memory: As I recall it — and as I’ve replayed it in my mind a million times since — a science professor at Columbia, in one of his riveting lectures (this popular class, held in a huge indoor ampitheater, was affectionately known by my fellow Lit majors as, “Science for Poets”), announced that computers would one day take over the world. They would “replicate with mutations,” I remember him saying. Human beings would become their slaves — if they survived at all. At this last statement, he smiled wryly, but I felt sure he wasn’t kidding.

This man was not a science-fiction-writer-quack, he was a distinguished professor at Columbia University in the City of New York. This was the late ‘70s, over 45 years ago, and I’ve been running away from computers, gripping my humanity with these two all-too-human hands, ever since.

In fact, one of the many reasons I went off to Africa in the late-‘90s to serve in the Peace Corps in Gabon for two years, and then on my own in Mali for three years, was to go back in time, to a time when computers were not (yet) taking over. Today in Africa that would no longer be the case.

My friend Sibyl, like many forward-thinking people these days, is focused on the plus-sides of A.I. – the speed, the ease, the eloquence, the time-saving benefits. Sibyl sees into the future, and that future looks rosy to her.

For me, I’m getting ready to take down my horse-cart-maker shingle and devote my determinately human hands to, maybe, watercolor painting. We’ll see.

I surrender.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This fascinating, new New Yorker article is on the pros and cons of A.I., from the p.o.v. of those who work in the field: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2024/03/18/among-the-ai-doomsayers?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_mailing=TNY_Daily_031224&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_medium=email&utm_term=tny_daily_digest&bxid=5be9ce1524c17c6adf3ab8f6&cndid=38291865&hasha=f7c49587c85679d4f299730628c80521&hashb=254a69cd28b2671ef6597fb4623fed06aa8d8e47&hashc=04ce3440a25028df40a6465a69c1bff843135a8b3bdd8733533f13fcc4551ce6&esrc=right_rail_magazine&mbid=CRMNYR012019