Monday, January 16, 2023

ChatGPT tried to write an obit for Martin Davis. What it got right, wrong, and what to make of it.

When Martin Davis passed away Lance emailed me what he got from using ChatGPT to do an obit. Here it is and I also note what it got wrong.


Born in 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, Davis received his bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College in 1950 [WRONG-1948] and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1953 [WRONG- it was Princeton in 1950].  He went on to have a distinguished career, with positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, the University of California, Berkeley, and New York University, where he spent the majority of his career.

Davis made significant contributions to the field of mathematics, particularly in the areas of computational complexity theory, recursive function theory, and mathematical logic. His work on the Davis-Putnam-Robinson-Matiyasevich algorithm [ADDED LATER BASED ON A COMMENT: WRONG-The DPRM theorem is that there is NO algorithm. It is not an algorithm.] helped establish the connection between logic and computers [WRONG- THE CONNECTION BETWEEN LOGIC AND COMPUTERS WAS ALREADY WELL KNOWN. CONNECTION BETWEEN COMPUTABILITY AND POLYNOMIALS WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER] and has had major implications for the field of computer science.

In addition to his academic pursuits, Davis was also a dedicated teacher and mentor. He was a popular and engaging speaker, known for his wit and clarity in explaining complex mathematical concepts. He inspired and encouraged countless students throughout his career and left a lasting impact on the mathematical community.

Davis was the recipient of many prestigious awards and honors, including the ACM Turing Award [WRONG- DAVIS NEVER WON A TURING AWARD], the highest honor in computer science, in 1994. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  [I WAS ABLE TO VERIFY THAT HE WAS IN THE AMERICAN ACAD. I WAS NOT ABLE TO VERIFY THAT HE WAS IN THE NATIONAL ACAD, BUT I DO NOT KNOW.]

Martin Davis will be greatly missed by his colleagues, students, and friends.  His contributions to mathematics and computer science will not be forgotten and will continue to inspire future generations of mathematicians and scientists.


This raises some questions

a) It got some factual things wrong. This surprised me. Its also a cautionary note: when you using ChatGPT for a first draft you need to check factual information. 

b) I was going to take the obit and modify it for my post. I found that I could not do this, not because of the mistakes in it, but because its not what I wanted to emphasize. See my obit post here.

c) Will this make bloggers jobs  and other jobs easier by just posting modified versions of things ChatGPT outputs? This is both a hope (less work) and a fear (no work). Options: 

c1) Much like farming, there will be a transition period where people are out of work but in the long term its a good thing that instead of 90% of people working on farms its 3%. So people transitioned (or the next generation did) to other jobs. (One could argue if this is really a good thing, though I've heard farming was VERY HARD WORK so people are happier not being farmers.)

c2) The jobs that are going away, there will NOT be replacement jobs and we are looking at an economic and psychological catastrophe. 

d) Even before ChatGPT I had heard of using a program to output a sports story about little league games for very local papers. 

e) The obvious fear: will students have ChatGPT produce their papers for them? In its current state the students would have to modify the paper. A few ways this could go:

e1) Analog to calculators: Students used to have to memorize multiplication up to 20x20 but now we let t hem use calculators. Students used to have to write papers, now we let them use ChatGPT and modify. This may be forced on us as opposed to something we want to do.

e2) There will be a fierce fight where teachers what students to NOT use ChatGPT but its hard to stop them. 

e3) ChatGPT will get much better. Even so, there will still be some things its bad at. Students won't know which is which, or won't care.

e4) I am tempted to say it won't affect math but I think it might for, say, standard proofs by induction, standard calculations from calculus (we already have programs that can differentiate and integrate- has that affected how Calculus is taught or graded?). 


  1. I only learned the multiplication table up to 12 x 12. Of course, you only need to learn it up to 9 x 9 to do multiplication by hand.

    It has been known for almost a century how to deal with unemployment. Whether the politicians will do it, is a different question.

  2. Because of your (e4) I asked GPT this question:

    Use induction to prove that the sum of the first n odd integers equals n squared.

    Here is the copy and pasted answer (that is, I changed nothing).

    Base Case: n = 1

    1^2 = 1

    1 is the first odd integer, and the sum of the first odd integer is 1, which is equal to 1^2.

    Inductive Step: Assume the statement holds for n = k, so that the sum of the first k odd integers equals k^2. Now consider n = k + 1.

    The sum of the first k + 1 odd integers is equal to the sum of the first k odd integers, plus (2k + 1).

    By the inductive hypothesis, the sum of the first k odd integers equals k^2.

    Therefore, the sum of the first k + 1 odd integers equals k^2 + (2k + 1), which can be simplified to (k + 1)^2.

    Since the statement holds for n = k + 1, the statement holds for all positive integers n.

  3. Students using calculators is why in the grocery store you can trick customers into buying the 3lb bag for more than 3x the 1lb bag as long as it is math like "1lb for 1.39, 3lbs for $4.49" so I would suggest the answer is to revoke calculators rather than allow ChatGPT.

  4. Perhaps we are at the cusp of a revolution of the magnitude of the industrial revolution? One scenario is that numerous mundane jobs will be done by future incarnations of Chat GPT, including writing software. Just the repercussion of the latter may mean disappearance of thousands of low-level software jobs and a huge drop in CS enrollments! In that brave new world, the creative, original thinkers will be even more in demand. Perhaps the importance of math and theory courses, which teach students how to think at a non-trivial level, will shoot up dramatically? (I am assuming Chat GPT will not replace mathematicians and theoreticians!)

    1. Will the replaced-by-GPT humans get sent off on the Ark Fleet Ship B?

    2. More likely, they will go wherever horse-carriage drivers went when automobiles hit the roads in big numbers.

  5. If you were thinking of giving ChatGPT co-author status on your next article, you should think twice about it, says Gary Marcus.

    The tl;dr version: ChatGPT has a problem with truth, namely, it doesn't do truth. At all. In any way whatsoever. And has no possible way forward to add some sort of concept of truth (or physical reality, or mathematics, or even simple arithmentic) to its game.

    Since every single thing it outputs must be checked (i.e. it can't be believed about anything), I don't see how it's going to replace people. My guess is that it'd be harder to fix ChatGPT output than to actually do the work from scratch. And, as our original poster noticed, you get a better result* if you just do it yourself.

    *: For the obvious reason that explicitly formulating the nature of what you want may actually be harder than just doing it.

  6. Another error: The phrase " Davis-Putnam-Robinson-Matiyasevich algorithm" feels wrong, since the theorem is a proof for the non-existence of an algorithm.

  7. I just got this message by a colleague:
    "I have just had ChatGPT take my practice exam. It would definitely get a reasonable grade. That means the end of online exams?"
    The test was on "Phylogeny and Evolution - practice exam"