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There’s been a lot of media coverage of ChatGPT and language models lately, and I feel like not everything is being said quite right. That’s why I have prepared some questions and answers that hopefully help clarify what they are talking about.


  1. What is a (large) language model?
  2. What is ChatGPT?
  3. Are GPT-3.5 and ChatGPT the best things out there?
  4. Are there any available alternatives, ideally open source?
  5. How can ChatGPT speak multiple languages? Does it use machine translation?
  6. Where does the knowledge ChatGPT has come from? Does he use a search engine?
  7. What to do about pupils and students using it in schools?
  8. Language models have opponents who consider them dangerous technology. What’s the danger?

What is a (large) language model?

Mathematically speaking, a language model is a function or algorithm that, for some text (completed or incomplete), estimates the probability of what word will follow in the text. It is a basic tool that has been used in natural language processing since the 1990s, originally mainly to select variants in speech recognition and automatic translation that are more fluent and make better sense in a given context.

Language models learn from data: from plain text, today, most often on texts mined from the Internet. Since the 1990s, the way language models are trained fundamentally changed several times. The available computing power and the amount of available training data have increased dramatically. Current language models are neural networks based on the Transformer architecture. The architecture represents input words as sequences of continuous number vectors. It alternates between classical feed-forward layers and something called an attention mechanism. In these layers, the model seems to “pick” relevant information from the input text (there is no disturbing between the input and the generated text) to predict the next word.

The actual learning or training is done by presenting real human-written texts to the model. The model receives training data in batches of tens of thousands of words. With each batch, the model adjusts its parameters so that the model considers the last batch of data a little more probable than before. Training can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on the size of the data and the size of the model.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about large language models showing remarkable abilities that could be described as intelligent behavior. In addition to the ability to creatively and interestingly continue texts, they can pick up complex patterns from a few examples. This is sometimes called few-shot learning. In this case, a user formulates a task (e.g. deciding if it is a hateful post, shortening a sentence, correcting spelling mistakes, etc.) in natural language and adds several examples of inputs and outputs. The model then continues the pattern it picked up from the input. Surprisingly, language models are able to solve tasks that usually require considerable intellectual effort.

The best-known examples are the large GPT language models from OpenAI. For an idea of what big means: For the training of GPT-3 published in May 2020) 45TB of text was used, which corresponds, for example, to 37 million copies of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (if spread on a football field, they would reach a height of 4.5 meters). GPT-3 has 175 billion trainable parameters. Each parameter is a real number whose storage requires 4 bytes. So 561 GiB of memory is needed just to store the model. Additional memory is then needed for the calculations themselves.

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a chatbot – a program that communicates with humans in natural language. OpenAI launched a free public demo in December 2022. There are plans to charge it.

Technically, ChatGPT is finetuned GPT 3.5 model (an improved version of GPT 3, for which OpenAI has not published many details) so it does not need to get examples of how to perform tasks, but can solve them based on instructions from the user. OpenAI used a similar principle in its InstuctGPT model, for which a preprint was published in April 2022, which has not yet been published in any peer-reviewed proceedings.

ChatGPT training takes place in two phases: in the first phase, annotators (workers who prepare training data for machine learning) used the GPT model to create sample dialogues, showcasing how the chatbot should behave. By the second stage, the system no longer directly received samples of dialogues, but only learns through simple feedback: annotators marked answers as good or bad. Based on this, the system improved without direct examples of correct answers. To reduce the need for human annotations, the system’s authors trained additional neural networks to simulate the human feedback. The entire system can then be further trained using simulated feedback without the need for human input. Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands to millions of annotations were needed to develop ChatGPT. According to Time magazine, OpenAI hired agencies in English-speaking developing countries. In Nairobi, Kenya, for example, annotators were paid between $1.32 and $2 an hour.

ChatGPT can answer questions and generate text according to user instructions in natural language. It exhibits extensive encyclopedic knowledge, and since a lot of source code and computer science texts were part of the training data, it seems to be quite good at programming. This is probably the first time in the history of computer science that a computer system has largely met popular ideas about what artificial intelligence could or should look like. The biggest problem with the system is that all information it provides sounds plausible, but it does not mention any sources and is often factually wrong. When working with ChatGPT, it is necessary to check all the facts against reliable sources.

Are GPT-3.5 and ChatGPT the best things out there?

GPT 3.5 and ChatGPT are probably the best models readily available to the broader public. But they are not the biggest and best models that exist. Google has its PaLM model (a preprint describing it was published in April 2022, no peer-reviewed article has been published yet) that reportedly shows interesting capabilities that GPT-3 does not. What resonated most on social media was the alleged ability to explain jokes. Essentially the same models as the GPT-3 called Open Pretrained Transformer (OPT) were completely published including technical details by Meta (operator of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) two years after the GPT 3 in May 2022.

Google also has the LaMDA chatbot (January 2022 preprint, peer-reviewed article not yet published), which was trained slightly differently from ChatGPT. It is a pure language model trained on conversations only, i.e., without training on feedback. The LaMDA chatbot caused a stir in the first half of 2022 when one of its developers claimed that LaMDA was a feeling being and should be treated accordingly. In January 2023, more than half a year after the scandal, Google announced public testing of the chatbot.

Are there any available alternatives, ideally open source?

OpenAI is quite secretive. It did not even make the GPT 3 available to the expert community, explaining that it feared abuse. However, the model is available through a web interface, and OpenAI charges considerable fees.

There are open-source alternatives. Meta has prepared OPT models that are very similar to GPT-3 and made them freely available for download. The Big Science Workshop initiative, backed by New York-based startup HuggingFace and a consortium of European and American universities, has developed a multilingual BLOOM model that was trained for around 40 languages. The European Union is also supporting the development of large language models for Europeans through several projects – one of them (HPTLP) includes the Institute of Formal and Applied Linguistics at Charles University.

There is an open-source Open-Assistant initiative led by the German non-profit organization LAION. Its goal is to create a model with similar capabilities to ChatGPT but is open source and can be used on commonly available hardware. While it is an ambitious goal, if the project is successful in a large university, it has a reasonable chance of success.

In a commercial setting, it offers a similar tool to ChatGPT search engine You.com from a California-based AI startup that originates in Salesforce and Stanford University. Subjectively, it seems to work worse than ChatGPT. Unlike it, however, it works with a search engine and generates answers from search results. This allows the user to verify which sources the answer comes from.

How can ChatGPT speak multiple languages? Does it use machine translation?

ChatGPT learned Czech and other languages almost as a by-product of using training data that contained more languages besides English. It is not the case that the chatbot would be connected to a translator.

The larger the digital footprint of a language, the better ChatGPT can handle it. We can estimate how well a language is covered based on how well ChatGPT can translate the language. A recent preprint from Chinese company Tencent shows that it works quite well for languages with a big digital footprint, comparable to state-of-the-art machine translation about five years ago. On the other hand, languages with a small digital footprint work much worse than today’s automatic translators.

We can guess that there is no explicit translator involved from the fact that the generated text gradually appears. In English, whole words usually appear. However, Czech is generated in much smaller pieces, in pairs or triples of letters. The reason is that language models can only work with a limited number of language units, on the order of tens of thousands, at most hundreds of thousands. The frequent words remain intact – in this case, the most common words are English. The less frequent a word is in the training data, the more units it consists of. If it were an automatic translation, there would be longer units on the Czech side too. In addition, ChatGPT would have a longer response time in Czech: it would generate the text first and then translate it.

Where does the knowledge of ChatGPT come from? Does he use a search engine?

Everything ChatGPT and all language models know about the world is encoded in the learned parameters of the model. No search engine is used. It is problematic in many ways. One problem is that we do not know the source of information. Another problem is that it is not entirely easy to edit knowledge in the model and thus selectively remove disinformation, for example. Yet another problem is that the whole system has been trained at some point, and there is no straightforward way to update it. ChatGPT thus has no knowledge of what happened after 2020.

In general, neural networks are difficult to interpret, and people try to come up with explanations of the inner workings of neural networks only after they are trained. Recent experiments with language models at MIT have shown that factual knowledge is stored distributed in the feed-forward layers. Some facts can be localized and edited, others not. How to apply this method on a larger scale and whether it works for really large language models is unclear.

Some systems combine search with response generation. They can tell what the generated answer is based on. Still, there is no guarantee that the sources are credible and that the language model can extract truthful information from credible sources.

What to do about pupils and students using it in schools?

A 2020 study with older language models from Google and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a very recent preprint from Stanford, shows that it is relatively easy to machine-detect generated text, while humans have great difficulty doing so. For easier recognition of generated text, a technique called watermarking can be used, where a virtual watermark is added to the generated text. This method is summarized very well by a recent preprint from the University of Maryland. In practice, this means adjusting the probabilities in the model so that some words or sequences of words occur significantly more often than in natural text, but this is imperceptible to humans. It is then relatively easy to test whether the text contains a watermark or not. OpenAI made its own generated text detector available at the end of January.

If auto-generated text detection tools become widespread, it can start a never-ending arms race. Whoever has a generated text detector and can run it arbitrarily many times can also use it to train another, smaller language model to paraphrase the original text so that it does not change the content and tricks the detector.

I believe efforts to restrict the use of language models are doomed to fail. There is no point in banning anything, but it is necessary to prepare pupils for an artificial intelligence world. Technologies like ChatGPT will change the way knowledge is handled in the future, and schools should prepare pupils and learners for it.

Language models have opponents who consider them dangerous technology. What is the danger?

As with any other technology, there is a risk of abuse of large language models. The ability to generate authentic-sounding fluent text using examples or instructions can be misused to generate fake news. The ability to have a conversation with a purpose can be used to automate fraudulent emails, unfair business practices, or political propaganda.

In addition to direct abuse, other problematic aspects are much more subtle. Language models are trained on large amounts of data that contain many pathologies and toxic behavior (sexism, racism, political extremism). Because the models learn to imitate training data, it inevitably learns to imitate this behavior. Studies examining smaller language models in the US have found very disturbing results. Because of another problematic property of all neural networks, namely the opacity of the models, we cannot know when models are generating some output based on racist or sexist biases that were in the training data.

Professor Emily Bender of the University of Washington is the most vocal critic of use the of language models in the expert community. Her arguments are based on the assumption that linguistic meaning is actually the intention of a person who says or writes something. The language models have no intention and only sophisticatedly parrot what was in the training data in different variations. According to this argument, using language models safely is impossible because the model cannot know what one should or should not do but only what one does or does not. Moreover, it often acquires knowledge from notoriously toxic Internet environment. Bender and her coworkers summarize their arguments in a 2020 article.

A large part of the expert community (at least partially) disagrees with this criticism for various reasons. For example, because they disagree with the definition of meaning. There are also empirical studies that show that some models can partially simulate properties that should be unattainable under this concept of meaning. Another argument is that ChatGPT is not just parroting texts from the Internet, but through reinforcement learning, it tries to get as many thumbs up from annotators as possible.

However, this disagreement does not change the fact that language models often very subtly replicate racial, gender and other biases from training data and generate very plausible sounding false texts. If no action is taken in this direction, it can cause considerable social damage.