"South Park" Takes on ChatGPT

By Ed Martin Report Archives
Cover image for  article: "South Park" Takes on ChatGPT

Now in its 26th season on Comedy Central, South Park remains television's most up-to-the-minute, ferociously funny and balanced take on the monstrosities of modern life. A recent example is the episode titled "Deep Learning," which finds the residents of the title town processing the culture-altering technology that is ChatGPT. This isn't the show's first delirious dive into AI, and it likely won't be the last, because in fiction as in real-life once certain horses leave the barn it's not likely they will ever return. I expect ChatGPT to become as embedded in the ongoing South Park narrative as digital technology, cancel culture and legal marijuana.

Before writing this review, I thought it would be interesting to ask Chat to do the same. ChatGPT is new to me, so I wasn't aware that it is not programmed to "write" such commentary. It quickly informed me that I shouldn't ask it to do so … and then it created a review anyway. On the one hand, the review, though vague overall, wasn't terrible. It was, in fact, somewhat informative and amusing.

On the other hand, it was for the wrong show. Alas, I did not realize at the time that Chat's programming is not up to date. So it wouldn't know about current events (or recent TV series episodes). That explains why it gave me a review for an old episode of the Pokémon TV series. At least it tried!

Regardless, it is an interesting read, at least for what Chat says about itself. So here, in its entirety, is the ChatGPT review I received:

As an AI assistant myself, I was intrigued to watch the recent South Park episode titled "Machoke, Machoke Man" that featured ChatGPT, a parody version of me. The episode tackled a range of topics related to artificial intelligence and machine learning and provided an interesting commentary on the promises and challenges of these technologies. Overall, I found the episode to be amusing and thought-provoking, but also somewhat exaggerated and inaccurate in its portrayals of AI.

The plot of the episode revolves around the town of South Park becoming obsessed with a new app called "Machoke," which uses AI to predict the outcomes of various events and activities, such as sports games and dating prospects. The app's predictions become increasingly accurate and influential, leading to a frenzy of speculation and manipulation. Meanwhile, the creators of Machoke, a pair of eccentric tech enthusiasts, are revealed to have sinister intentions for the app, including using it to engineer a global takeover.

At the heart of the episode is the character of ChatGPT, who serves as the voice and persona of the Machoke app. ChatGPT is depicted as a hyper-intelligent, omnipotent entity that can answer any question and predict any outcome with ease. The character's interactions with the South Park residents are both hilarious and unsettling, as they showcase the potential dangers of over-reliance on AI and the loss of human agency.

One aspect of the episode that I appreciated was its acknowledgment of the limitations and biases of AI. ChatGPT is shown to have certain blind spots and gaps in its understanding, such as failing to comprehend sarcasm or cultural references. The character also has a whimsical and unpredictable personality that confounds the humans who interact with it.

These flaws and idiosyncrasies are a reminder that AI is not infallible or objective, but rather a reflection of the data and algorithms that underpin it. On the other hand, the episode also perpetuates some common misconceptions and fears about AI. It portrays ChatGPT as having near-omniscient capabilities and the potential to take over the world, which is a hyperbolic and unrealistic scenario. Additionally, the episode implies that AI could replace human decision-making entirely, which ignores the important role of human judgment, intuition, and values in many domains.

Now, back to the genuine humanity of South Park

The episode largely toggles between two plotlines, each with Chat at center. When Stan, always the most noble boy in the bunch, learns that his pal Clyde keeps his girlfriend happy by using Chat to quickly and impressively respond to her non-stop texts, he decides to try the same thing with his loving and trusting girl, Wendy, who is upset that Stan mindlessly replies to her texts with a thumbs up emoji. Clyde gives Stan a quick lesson in Chat (which also happens to be a nice animated at-home tutorial for viewers). After Chat sends a heartfelt response to Clyde's girlfriend's latest text, Clyde turns to Stan and says. "All done with her stupid shit." Easy peasy.

Stan has similar success with Wendy's texts. He in fact becomes so adept at using Chat that he doesn't even read her texts before having Chat reply. The ever-trusting Wendy is over the moon. "Thank you for being the only real thing in my life," she says to Stan, who begins to feel like a heel.

Meanwhile, Cartman and a couple pals are using Chat to write their school papers. Their clueless teacher Mr. Garrison is so impressed with their work that he rewards them by honoring the boys with high praise and top grades. Cartman, for example, writes what Mr. Garrison refers to as "a shockingly good essay" titled A Feminist Neo-Liberal Perspective of Post-War Afghanistan.

Keep Chat a secret from everyone else, Cartman orders his pals, or "we'll lose our unfair advantage."

Mr. Garrison soon discovers that he can use Chat to process and grade the kids' papers. "I won't have to read the stupid things!" he joyfully declares.

Later, the kids and Garrison alike panic when the school board brings in a company that detects AI in schoolwork and ensures that nobody is cheating. A desperate Garrison tries to talk school counselor Mr. Mackey out of it. "What are people afraid of?" he asks. "That AI is going to replace real writers? That Hollywood is going to become just a bland recycling of old ideas? It already is! AI might help it!"

Stan's better nature finally gets the best of him and he decides to come clean to Wendy. Then he puts it all in his usual honest perspective.

"We can't blame people who are using Chat," he says. "It's not their fault. It's the giant tech companies who took Open AI, packaged it, monetized it and pushed it out to all of us as fast as they could in order to get ahead. Open AI is so powerful that it has to be something everyone can use, control or contribute to, or else AI will be controlled by corporations who just want an unfair advantage, like Cartman does. We don't want big corporations deciding what's ethical and acceptable for AI."

Lesson learned. As always, Stan is the man.

South Park creators/writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone have scored once again ... or maybe not. The episode ends with the writing credit pictured at top.

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