Friday, January 7, 2022

AI Did Not Write (Most Of) This Post (Or: "Why our screens are filled with so much crap")

Once more, someone is trying to cash in on the prospect of teaching an AI to "write" and resolutely calling it an AI when it's just one more algorithm scraping the internet for samples that it can regurgitate, sort of correctly, sort of not. Hooray for automating mediocrity.

Meet Jarvis (yes, that's a cute nod to comics nerd-dom), an algorithm that can make it "fast and easy to create content for your blog, social media, website, and more!" It's not cheap, but there's a free trial, and I gave it a shot because I remain fascinated by the still-unfulfilled dream of getting a computer to do language.

Jarvis is one year old, founded by Dave Rogenmoser, who was co-owner of Market Results, co-founder of Redwood Recruiting, and co-author of Beyond the Grind, a book that may never have made it out of Kickstarter about how to "fuel the fire" (and add value") by two guys who quit their jobs to become entrepreneurs. It was supposed to kick off a movement, but the kickstarter was canceled in November 2014. Rogenmoser's co-entrepreneur/author was Chris Hull, who is also a co-founder of Jarvis. Rogenmoser graduated from Kansas State U with a BA in Marketing back in 2011; Hull has a BS from Oklahoma State U in Secondary Science Education, though he apparently has never taught. It's not clear what "quit our jobs" really means in this context, but these plucky guys are here to have a computer write your stuff.

Jarvis promises big--just give it a topic, maybe a sentence, and some hints of what "tone" you want, and it spits out words lined up in sentences and paragraphs. You can ask for your output in many different languages, which gives this the extra level of bad computer translation on top of bad computer writing. And I can report that it does it all in seconds. Entrepreneurs will never have to hire humans to string words for them again, ever. Hooray. 

Here are some samples. This first one is sort of an open attack, where I start and then hand it over to Jarvis, then he tosses back to me, and so forth. You get two tries by the algorithm for each prompt, but for our purposes, one will be plenty. The result...

Trying to advocate for teacher safety during a pandemic is like trying to push jello up a pile of dead salmon. While, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you ask, the "pandemic" hasn't happened yet and can be argued as not even happening this year. But teachers in Chicago are still fighting to keep their jobs, in fear of catching the flu or any other illness that may be going around.

This year, as the pandemic drags on, the number of flu cases continues to drop off. But the fear and panic that accompanied it at its height remains. Covid cases are up thanks to omicron and andromedous crashing at the same time.

You can also ask Jarvis to just pump out some stuff. Here I asked him to give me an opening paragraph for a blog post about teacher evaluation systems (thus letting me "blast through writers' block).

Are teacher evaluation systems effective? This is a question that has been debated for years, with no clear consensus. Some people believe that such systems are essential for improving teaching practices, while others maintain that they do more harm than good. In this blog post, we'll take a closer look at the pros and cons of teacher evaluation systems and discuss some of the latest research on the topic. Stay tuned!

At least this is recognizable as Actual English and not Almost English, but it's still terrible.

Jarvis will also write your concluding paragraph. On this one, Jarvis actually surprised me a little. The only prompt I gave him was that high stakes testing is bad for schools and damages the educational process. He also requires a call to action, so I said get legislators to end the practice. Here's what he wrote:

Conclusion paragraph: High stakes testing is bad for everyone involved. From the school children who are subject to these tests, to teachers who have their lesson plans influenced by test scores and parents of students whose grades may affect where they go to college or if they get scholarships, high stakes testing has a huge impact on all aspects of education. The best thing we can do as Americans is advocate for legislators that will end this practice once and for all. What’s your opinion? Do you think our politicians should take steps towards ending standardized assessments like PARCC, ACT Aspire and other common exams across the country? If not why not?

That was with a "casual" tone, so I tried again with a "witty" tone

Conclusion paragraph: The practice of high stakes testing is a bad idea for schools and damages the educational process. It’s time to get legislators on board with ending this damaging practice—for our children, we can’t continue to make education about money. Testing should be used only as an occasional diagnostic tool, not something that determines if students graduate or teachers keep their jobs. We all deserve better than what high stakes testing offers us; it's time that we demand change!

In both cases, the program scraped up some statements that aren't accurate, but did manage to scrape up some specifics. 

Jarvis will also generate a blog post outline from a topic idea, a feature the site says works best with listicles or how to posts, so I tried both. Here's the response to "10 bad education trends," formal style

1. The US is ranked 31st in the world for education
2. There are more than 1 million homeless students in America's public schools
3. 25% of high school seniors don't graduate on time with their peers
4. Black and Hispanic students drop out at much higher rates than white or Asian students
5. Average SAT scores have been steadily decreasing since 2006, while ACT scores have remained steady 
6. College tuition has increased by an average of 5% every year since 1978, which means that it costs twice as much today to attend a private college than it did 30 years ago

The student does not appear to have understood the assignment. Now let's try a How To for teaching reading

1. The benefits of reading
2. The importance of phonemic awareness
3. Phonics instruction
4. Fluency instruction
5. Vocabulary and comprehension instruction
6. Assessing reading progress

So who would possibly use Jarvis? Well, there are even whacky story generators, but most of the templates are for generating marketing posts. That includes content specifically aimed at Google, Amazon and Facebook. It will also crank out scripts and captions for Youtube videos and generate SEO titles and meta tags. 

Attention: Are you a writer who wants to improve their writing skills?

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Desire: If you want to become a better writer or simply need some guidance on how best to communicate with your readers, then this course is perfect for you! Whether it's blogging, copywriting or social media posts - we'll teach you everything there is know about creating great content so that people actually read what you write! And if that wasn't enough - our instructors have years of experience working as journalists at major publications like Forbes Magazine and Mashable so they really know what they're talking about when it comes down to good writing practices. So sign up today! This offer won't last forever...and neither will these prices! (limited time only)

Action: Click here now before this deal expires!!!

Weirdly, the algorithm managed to tie me to Forbes, but I've never written a word for Mashable in my life. This keeps with the algorithm's tendency to be sort of right, sort of not. 

Like all good services, this one has lots of upselling going on. At Boss Level the algorithm can do even more of the word-stringing for you, even if it's rudimentary crap. Here's the video sales pitch for having the algorithm create a five paragraph essay. Yikes.

So what have we learned?

Well, first, we've reinforced for the 60 gazillionth time that algorithms can't write. They can scrape through what a bunch of other people have written and string together words that sound right and may or may not be right. If they were students in my old high school classes, they would not do particularly well.

Second, we've gotten a peek at how soi much internet sausage is made and a sense of why so much "content" doesn't feel particularly authentic, rich or good. I can only imagine what will happen when the algorithms are all scraping up word strings churned out by other algorithms


  1. Actually, Jarvis' writing isn't all that bad!

  2. Jarvis seems perfect for college students too lazy to do their own BSing through a blue book exam.