🛠️  Hacking with Hamlet  👑

Cyrano as chatbot assistant

I learned the other day that around 17% of Stanford students report using ChatGPT on their assignments and assessments last fall. Maybe this shouldn’t be so shocking to me: students are busy and overworked and will use whatever resources they can access to get their work done.

At the same time, I can’t imagine myself using a language model to write an essay. One of the joys of college for me was writing essays knowing that a professor or graduate student would read them and engage with my thoughts in response. Outsourcing that thinking to a statistical model feels wasteful at best, disrespectful after that, and academically dishonest at worst.

Thinking more about this, I was reminded of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac: specifically, the scene where the eloquent poet Cyrano offers to “ghostwrite” the bumbling Christian’s love letters to Roxane.

Is Cyrano is like a 17th-century ChatGPT? You might think that his ability to produce poetry and wit on the spot is reminiscent of language models (you can imagine “prompting” one for “a list of clever insults about a big nose”). But on further reflection I would say, no, not at all. Unlike any language model, Cyrano has human passions and faults. He loves Roxane himself, and channels that love into his poetry, even into the very letters that he offers Christian. His writing is thus incommensurate with a language model’s.

Christian himself, on the other hand—! I do think his use of Cyrano’s “services” to woo Roxane is analogous to a Stanford student’s use of ChatGPT to pass a class, in important ways.

First, the source of the temptation is the same: both Cyrano and the language model offer instant, readymade text to someone desperate and short on time.

CHRISTIAN: The letter, that she waits for even now! I never can…

CYRANO (taking out the letter he had written): See! Here it is–your letter!

(2.X. I’m quoting here and below from the Thomas and Guillemard translation on Project Gutenberg.)

Second, they both tempt their customers to use those words lazily and “on autopilot,” blatantly copying and pasting them.

CHRISTIAN: What?

CYRANO: Take it! Look, it wants but the address.

CHRISTIAN: But I…

CYRANO: Fear nothing. Send it. It will suit.

But when pressed, they do not take responsibility for any weight those words may have. Language models are just “statistical” (or “haphazard-wise”) text generators, after all, and language model products often come with large disclaimers about possible “hallucination” (or, as Cyrano says, “phantasms of our brains”). Cyrano advertises his words as “eloquent all the more, the less sincere,” which makes you wonder what kind of person would be persuaded by such branding.

CHRISTIAN: But have you…?

CYRANO: Oh! We have our pockets full,
We poets, of love-letters, writ to Chloes,
Daphnes–creations of our noddle-heads.
Our lady-loves,–phantasms of our brains,
–Dream-fancies blown into soap-bubbles! Come!
Take it, and change feigned love-words into true;
I breathed my sighs and moans haphazard-wise;
Call all these wandering love-birds home to nest.
You’ll see that I was in these lettered lines,
Eloquent all the more, the less sincere!
–Take it, and make an end!

(We might protest that Cyrano’s words really were heartfelt, because he originally wrote them for himself. But that would forget that language models too are well-known to stitch together past heartfelt words of humans all the time. That does not make the outputs any less “feigned.”)

Both language models and Cyrano’s scheme rely on the illusion of authorship, which occurs because humans are primed to attribute communicative intent when offered texts. Just like the student banks on a naïve professor reading an essay assuming that it was human-written, Cyrano tells Christian to bank on Roxane assuming the words were “inspired by herself” because of the “credulity of love.” He tells Christian there is no need to “change some words” (something a student might also consider doing to avoid an accusation of plagiarism).

CHRISTIAN: Were it not well
To change some words? Written haphazard-wise,
Will it fit Roxane?

CYRANO: ‘Twill fit like a glove!

CHRISTIAN: But…

CYRANO: Ah, credulity of love! Roxane
Will think each word inspired by herself!

Finally, Christian discovers that once you begin to rely on an external mechanism to modulate your expression, you become completely dependent on that mechanism.

CHRISTIAN: My friend!

(He throws himself into Cyrano’s arms. They remain thus.)

Of course, that is an extraordinarily dangerous place to be. While in college you might think that the language model is simply an “assistant” helping you learn:

CHRISTIAN: And how know you I cannot speak?–
I am not such a fool when all is said!
I’ve by your lessons profited. (3.IV)

…but when it comes time to use those skills, you might discover that you have sleepwalked through your education without having discovered how to have and express original thoughts at all.

(Seeing Roxane come out from Clomire’s house):
–It is she! Cyrano, no!–Leave me not!

And indeed, Christian’s inevitable humiliation comes in 3.V, when he finally has to talk to Roxane face to face— an encounter students might recognize as a kind of oral exam.


Update on Febrary 12, 2023: Poet Joseph Fasano wrote a poem about students cheating on their homework with AI (see Twitter).

For a Student Who Used AI to Write a Paper
by Joseph Fasano

Now I let it fall back
in the grasses.
I hear you. I know
this life is hard now.
I know your days are precious
on this earth.
But what are you trying
to be free of?
The living? The miraculous
task of it?
Love is for the ones who love the work.