“It would be a real mistake to think that when you’re teaching a child, all you are doing is adjusting the weights in a network.”

Madhumita Murgia

Chiang’s main objection, a writerly one, is with the words we choose to describe all this. Anthropomorphic language such as “learn”, “understand”, “know” and personal pronouns such as “I” that AI engineers and journalists project on to chatbots such as ChatGPT create an illusion. This hasty shorthand pushes all of us, he says — even those intimately familiar with how these systems work — towards seeing sparks of sentience in AI tools, where there are none.

“There was an exchange on Twitter a while back where someone said, ‘What is artificial intelligence?’ And someone else said, ‘A poor choice of words in 1954’,” he says. “And, you know, they’re right. I think that if we had chosen a different phrase for it, back in the ’50s, we might have avoided a lot of the confusion that we’re having now.”

So if he had to invent a term, what would it be? His answer is instant: applied statistics.

“It’s genuinely amazing that . . . these sorts of things can be extracted from a statistical analysis of a large body of text,” he says. But, in his view, that doesn’t make the tools intelligent. Applied statistics is a far more precise descriptor, “but no one wants to use that term, because it’s not as sexy”.