Are the machines gunning for your favorite bird-hunting stories?
By Chad Love
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“I’ll be back.”
Opening a blog about quail and quail hunting with pair of movie quotes from robot bad guys* may seem a little well...odd, but artificial intelligence is seemingly everywhere these days, and the upland world is no different.
The appearance and rapid evolution of powerful AI chatbots isn’t going away and promises to touch our lives in ways we don’t yet know, despite the somewhat disturbing fact that in a recent poll of AI researchers and programmers, fully 10 percent of them thought this technology could eventually cause the extinction of the human race. Comforting thought, right?
As a writer and editor, this technology naturally got me thinking about the future of communication in the outdoor and conservation space. Could my job someday be replaced by a chatbot? (If I’m honest, some would argue that would be a vast improvement...)
Or could the voices of the writers and columnists in our magazines be replicated by machine intelligence? Could a habitat improvement chatbot perform the functions of our Farm Bill biologists? It’s a fascinating subject that I’m currently researching for a feature story (to be written by me, not a bot, I promise!) but I’m curious about your opinions on the subject. Email them to me at email@example.com.
But in the meantime I’ve been playing around with the best-known AI chatbot, ChatGPT, to see just how well it writes outdoorsy prose. The upland world has a long and distinguished history of literary writers and writing. And like most genres, it also has its share of well-worn cliches, tropes, themes, and hoary old chestnuts. How well does ChatGPT emulate the style of upland literature?
As it turns out, the results are...mixed.
This is by no means a thorough analysis, and for the sake of brevity I’ve not included all the text of all the stories I prompted ChatGPT to write, but here’s a quick and dirty sample of what the Matrix thinks of quail hunting...
I first asked it to write me a story, with no direction in style, about quail hunting. Within 30 seconds it spat out a 500-word story that, quite honestly, with a few edits and corrections, would — at first glance — be hard to identify as being written by a piece of programming code.
The opening sentence: The sun had just started to peek over the horizon as John and his father, Bill, drove down the dirt road towards their favorite quail hunting spot. John could barely contain his excitement; it had been a year since he'd last gone hunting with his father and he was eager to get started.
And a few sentences from the body of the story:
“The morning air was crisp and cool, and the dew on the grass sparkled in the early light. Bill led the way, his shotgun at the ready. John followed behind, taking in the beauty of the countryside. The hunting dogs ran ahead, sniffing and searching for any sign of a quail.
As they made their way back to the truck, John couldn't help but feel a sense of accomplishment. He'd managed to bag a few quail, and he'd spent a morning with his father doing something they both loved. He felt grateful for the opportunity to spend time with his dad and to experience the thrill of the hunt.
As they drove down the dirt road, Bill turned to John and said, "You know, son, there's nothing quite like a morning spent hunting with your dad." John nodded, a smile on his face. He knew that he'd be back out in the field again as soon as he could.
As part of this blog, we tried creating AI images of upland hunting using words like “quail hunting in Oklahoma with a bird dog.” Our first attempt resulted in a true “bird dog.”
Let’s see...opens with a sunrise scene-setter, makes the connection between father and son (apparently females don’t hunt in AI world), has a paragraph about appreciating the natural beauty, a paragraph about reflecting on the experience, followed by the journey home and another, story-ending moment-of-reflection kicker. Straight out of the hook-and-bullet writing cliché handbook.
It was stilty, formulaic, larded with saccharine imagery and platitudes, utterly devoid of any spark of creativity or literary risk, and it was quite frankly boring as hell. But it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. However bad it was, it was a complete story.
I then asked it to write me a quail hunting story in the style of a pair of cherished bird-hunting writers — in this case Robert Ruark and Gene Hill.
The style changed a bit, became a tad more descriptive, but hewed almost exactly to the same format and structure and theme.
The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon, casting a pinkish glow across the dew-covered grass. The morning was crisp and cool, perfect for quail hunting. My trusty hunting dog, Scout, was already sniffing around the edge of the field, his tail wagging in anticipation.
The only other wrinkle was that it added a Ruark quote at the end of the story. This would become a common theme when I asked it write in the style of a specific person.
“As we drove away, I couldn't help but reflect on the day's hunt. There was something about quail hunting that was different from any other kind of hunting. It wasn't just about the hunt itself, but the experience of being out in the field with your dog, your shotgun, and your thoughts.
As we fine-tuned and played around with various words, the images began to look a little more familiar, but still obviously...weird.
I was reminded of the words of Robert Ruark, who wrote, "To be a hunter is to be alive. It means not only that you have learned to appreciate what the land provides but also that you have learned to take care of it so that it will continue to provide."
I knew that he was right. Hunting wasn't just about taking down a bird or a deer, but about appreciating the land and the creatures that lived on it. It was about being part of a cycle of life that had been going on for thousands of years.”
Cliched, but not bad. Realizing I needed to shake things up a bit, I decided to go in a different stylistic direction, so I asked it to write me a quail hunting story in the style of... Ozzy Osbourne. And that’s when ChatGPT finally started finding its voice...
“I staggered out of my truck, my head pounding from the night before. I was meeting up with my buddies for a quail hunt, but the only thing on my mind was a hair of the dog.
As we made our way through the fields, I struggled to keep up with the dogs. My vision was blurry, and my hands were shaking from withdrawal. But I didn't care. I was here for the thrill of the hunt.”
Based on that, I’d definitely read the Ozzman on quail...
Encouraged, I then asked it to emulate another non-quail-hunting voice, and discovered that in the midst of all the rote, robotic prose, ChatGPT can genuinely surprise you. Here’s a line from Shakespeare’s take on quail hunting:
“In this hunt, there was no agent. There was only the hunter and the hunted, the beauty and the violence, the life and the death. And yet, in the end, it was all part of the great dance of life. The quail would be food for my table, and its memory would live on in my heart forever.”
Folks, that’s not bad writing. I even ran parts of that quote through a plagiarism checker to make sure it wasn’t just scraping quotes off the internet to pass off as its own, and I couldn’t find anything on it.
After some more tinkering, the AI did manage to produce something approaching a dog, but as you can tell from this photo and the header photo, there’s something still something a little creepy about them. And what planet is that mystery bird from?
Curious, I then prompted it to create a quail management plan for 160 acres:
The quail management plan for 160 acres will focus on creating a suitable habitat and environment for the birds to thrive. This includes:
- Creating brushy cover for nesting and brood-rearing by leaving dense, woody vegetation patches throughout the property.
- Managing the grasslands through prescribed burning, rotational grazing, or mowing to maintain a diverse vegetation structure.
- Providing supplemental food and water sources during the winter months.
- Controlling predator populations through trapping and hunting.
- Monitoring the population density and demographics of the quail through regular surveys and habitat assessments.
By implementing these measures, the quail population on the property can be sustained and even increased over time, ensuring a healthy and thriving ecosystem for these birds and other wildlife species.
As generalities go, some of it wasn’t bad, and some of it was...debatable. But either way I don’t think our Farm Bill biologists need to start worrying about their jobs.
Make no mistake, however: This is transformative technology, and it will certainly fundamentally change our society (or perhaps destroy it), of that there is little doubt.
Right now, playing around with ChatGPT is a bit like shaking a Magic 8 Ball: You ask a specific question, and you get a generalized, ambiguous, one-size-fits-all answer that isn’t quite an answer, a product that isn’t quite finished, or a story or image that needs a little (or a lot) of work.
It’s good for some laughs and possibility. But it won’t be like that forever, and there will come a time — sooner rather than later — when this technology will be truly remarkable. Or terrifying, depending on your point of view.
However, it will (hopefully, anyway) always lack that one intangible that humans — and only humans — possess: Appreciation.
You can possess every bit of knowledge ever discovered about something. You can master every style of writing, memorize every word in the dictionary and have the sum of the world’s knowledge available to you, and you can analyze and apply that knowledge in billions of calculations per second.
But knowledge and intelligence and absolute mastery without appreciation is merely impressive data regurgitation; the how without the why.
Because the why is the human. And until our future robot overlords can figure out a way to appreciate the why of things, they will forever remain stuck in the realm of the how, no matter how accomplished they may become at it.
At least until Skynet goes online...
*name the character and movie those quotes are from and get a virtual gold star...
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal. Or is he? And did he actually write this blog? Andrew Vavra, VP of Marketing at Quail Forever & Pheasants Forever, came in for the AI imagery assist. Or did he?