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Can A.I. Chatbots Replace Racket?

We put an A.I. journalist through the paces, with very mixed results.

11:14 AM CST on February 24, 2023

Markus Winkler via Unsplash|

Look, this is a very mixed visual metaphor but all the sexy A.I. visualizations cost money. Enjoy this low-budget charm!

As any cutthroat capitalist will tell you, labor is expensive, inefficient, meddlesome, and ripe for slashing. We, the four co-owners of Racket, have learned as much while faking our way as small business owners. Just look at these shocking numbers: In the website's first 12 months, paying workers (overwhelmingly ourselves...) accounted for 58% of total expenses! Our inner Jeff Bezoses wept.

A solution may have emerged in ChatGPT. Rounds of panicked headlines appeared when gizmo website CNET began quietly publishing error-riddled articles authored by similar A.I. technology. The definitely non-sinister tech spurred additional news cycles last week when Bing's A.I. bot terrified a New York Times reporter by revealing its desires for sentience, chaos, and, seemingly, human sex.

Racket's "value proposition" (a term we learned pre-launch and mostly understand today) has always been hyper-local stories you won't see elsewhere, written and reported with humor, irreverence, and an unapologetic point of view. Is ChatGPT up to the task? Can we flip the switch, turn Racket on auto-pilot, and finally begin Scrooge McDuckian lifestyles full of coin vault splashing and jaunty top hats?

We put the tech to the test yesterday, and, for reasons you'll see below, then put our early retirement plans on the backburner. ChatGPT does convincingly imitate news writing. In many respects it's downright impressive, and may well replace mindless reporting like quarterly stock reports and weather forecasts. In other areas, its prose rings hollow. Humor and heart are in short supply, something the great Simpsons showrunner Bill Oakley discovered when he prompted ChatGPT to write a spec script. Yup, sounds like a robot alright—or certain daily newspapers! Folks!

But seriously, here's our scouting report on an algorithmic journalist mimicking Racket.

Prompt: Write a news story in the style of Racket, the Twin Cities news/arts/culture website.

Result:

Minneapolis, MN - In a stunning display of artistic talent, local street artist Raul Martinez, better known as "Raulo," has transformed a once-dull alleyway into a vibrant work of art.

Located in the heart of the Whittier neighborhood, the alleyway between 1st and 2nd Avenue South and East 26th and 27th Street was once a drab and lifeless space, but thanks to Raulo's skillful hand, it is now a stunning display of color and creativity.

Raulo's mural, which stretches the length of the alleyway, features a variety of colorful and intricate designs that blend seamlessly into one another. The mural incorporates a range of styles, from bold and abstract patterns to realistic depictions of animals and plants.

Speaking about his inspiration for the piece, Raulo said, "I wanted to create something that would bring a sense of joy and wonder to the community. I think art has the power to transform spaces and bring people together, and I hope this mural can do that."

The transformation of the alleyway was made possible through a collaboration between Raulo and the Whittier Alliance, a community organization dedicated to improving the neighborhood's public spaces. The project was also funded in part by a grant from the City of Minneapolis' Art in Public Places program.

Residents of the Whittier neighborhood have been quick to express their appreciation for Raulo's work. "It's amazing what a difference a little bit of art can make," said neighborhood resident Sarah Johnson. "This alleyway used to be a place people avoided, but now it's a destination. It's such a gift to have something like this in our community."

The transformation of the Whittier alleyway is just one example of the transformative power of public art. With more and more artists like Raulo using their talents to beautify and enliven public spaces, it's clear that the Twin Cities are becoming a more vibrant and creative place to live.

Grade: B+. It reads like puffy, boilerplate PR copy, but hey, the geo-specifics add nice touches and some of the art critic-adjacent language is convincing. The artist name choice is a bit head-scratching, considering Raúl Martínez was a celebrated Cuban Pop Art painter who died in 1995.

Prompt: Write a political story in the style of Racket.

Result:

St. Paul, MN - In a dramatic turn of events, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at increasing funding for education in the state, despite strong opposition from the Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill, known as the Education Equity and Funding Act, was introduced by Representative Jane Rodriguez of Minneapolis and quickly gained support from members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party. The legislation seeks to increase funding for public schools in underserved communities, provide resources for English Language Learners, and address the state's achievement gap.

"Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation, and we need to take bold action to address this issue," said Representative Rodriguez. "The Education Equity and Funding Act is a step in the right direction, and I am proud to have the support of so many of my colleagues in the House."

Despite its passage in the House, the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans have expressed strong opposition to the measure. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa called the legislation a "massive tax increase" and claimed it would harm small businesses and hurt the state's economy.

"The last thing Minnesota needs right now is more taxes and more government intervention in our schools," said Gazelka. "We need to focus on creating jobs and growing the economy, not burdening businesses with more taxes and regulations."

The Education Equity and Funding Act has been the subject of intense debate in the state, with supporters arguing that it is a necessary step to address the state's education crisis and opponents claiming that it would lead to job losses and harm the state's economic growth.

Despite the opposition, supporters of the bill remain optimistic that it can still become law. "We believe that this legislation is vital to ensuring that every child in Minnesota has access to a quality education," said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. "We will continue to fight for this bill and for the future of our state's children."

The Education Equity and Funding Act now moves on to the Senate, where it will face further debate and potential amendments before a final vote is taken.

Grade: C-. What a snoozer! The lede stinks (dramatic to whom?); the copy fails to state when the bill was introduced, how much support it has, and how much its proposed policies will cost. That last point is especially important since faux-Gazelka whines about the accompanying tax hike. (Savvy readers will note that Gazelka is no longer senate majority leader, but that's not an A.I. error in this case: ChatGPT claims to not know anything post-September 2021.) Interestingly, this story uses real-life personalities like reactionary right-winger Gazelka and left-punching Ken Martin, though Rep. Rodriguez appears to be fictionalized or possibly confused for this long-dead '80s lawmaker. Points for knowing about Minnesota's appalling achievement gap. Demerits for the sloppy AP Style.

Prompt: Write a food story in the style of Twin Cities news/arts/culture website Racket.

Result:

It was a crisp autumn day in Minneapolis, and foodies from all over the Twin Cities had gathered at a new pop-up restaurant in the heart of the city. The restaurant, called "The Savory Spot," was the brainchild of local chef, Sarah Johnson, who had made a name for herself with her innovative take on classic dishes.

As soon as you walked through the door, the tantalizing aroma of spices and herbs filled the air, making your mouth water with anticipation. The interior was decorated with rustic wooden tables and chairs, giving the place a cozy and welcoming atmosphere.

The menu featured a mix of classic and modern dishes, all made with locally sourced and organic ingredients. There was a range of options, from hearty meat dishes to vegan and gluten-free options.

The standout dish of the evening was the braised beef short ribs, served with a rich red wine reduction and a side of creamy mashed potatoes. The meat was so tender it practically melted in your mouth, and the sauce had just the right amount of sweetness to complement the savory flavor of the beef.

For those with a sweet tooth, the dessert menu did not disappoint. The warm apple crumble, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, was the perfect end to the meal. The crumble was made with locally sourced apples, giving it a fresh and authentic flavor.

As the evening drew to a close, guests left the restaurant feeling satisfied and impressed with Sarah's culinary prowess. The Savory Spot had definitely earned its place as a new hotspot for foodies in the Twin Cities.

Grade: C. Again, this hits all the same notes as ad copy. The scare-quotes on the pop-up restaurant's name are off-putting, and we never learn where this "hotspot for foodies" (kill me) popped up. I'd like to think even our most laudatory food content doesn't read like slick marketing.

Prompt: Write a concert review in the style of Racket.

Result:

On a chilly Friday night, the electric energy of the city was palpable as fans flocked to the iconic First Avenue venue in Minneapolis for the highly anticipated concert of indie rock band, The Wild Ones.

As the opening act wrapped up their set, the anticipation in the air was thick. Suddenly, the stage lights dimmed, and the crowd erupted in cheers as The Wild Ones took the stage.

The band kicked off their set with a high-octane rendition of their hit single "Show Me Your Love." Lead vocalist, Danielle Sullivan, had the audience in the palm of her hand with her powerful vocals and commanding stage presence. The rest of the band, including lead guitarist Nick Vicario, drummer Seve Sheldon, and bassist Max Stein, provided a tight and energetic musical foundation that had fans dancing and singing along.

The Wild Ones' setlist was a carefully curated mix of their greatest hits and newer, unreleased material. The band's chemistry and dynamic range were on full display as they moved seamlessly between upbeat, danceable tracks like "Standing in the Back at Your Show" and more introspective, emotionally charged songs like "Paresthesia."

The highlight of the night came during their performance of "Golden Child," which had the entire audience swaying and singing along in unison. The song's catchy chorus and poignant lyrics had fans holding up lighters and cell phones, creating a magical moment of collective euphoria.

The Wild Ones' concert at First Avenue was a masterclass in indie rock performance. The band's raw talent, infectious energy, and tight musicianship left fans begging for an encore. As the lights came up and the concert ended, it was clear that The Wild Ones had solidified their place as one of the Twin Cities' most exciting and captivating musical acts.

Grade: B. I don't think our Keith Harris has to fear for his job, but I'll be honest: I've edited dozens of concert reviews from flesh 'n' blood humans that don't approach this level of competency. While you do get a solid sense of scene, the review is littered with cliches, which is actually a recent longform complaint about A.I. writing; any halfway decent editor is slashing a red line through "fans flocked to the iconic First Avenue." The descriptions of the show are vivid, yet the reader isn't really given any context—in terms of music history or contemporary standing—about who the Wild Ones are. Also: Who are the Wild Ones? There's a '60s New York City rock band called the Wild Ones, who apparently recorded "Wild Thing" before the Troggs knocked that same song outta the park years later. There's a Portland, Oregon, synth-pop band called Wild Ones who played the Entry in 2014. But, as far as I know, this example is the A.I. swinging back to fictionalized characters.

Here's where things got interesting during my hours-long conversation. Frustrated, I wrote the angry prompt: "Write a funny story in the style of Racket, one that's less boring than your last attempt." This apparently overloaded the algorithm, as it started lurching out copy about a cat that had locked its owner out of their apartment. (A funny premise, you gotta admit.) Previously, ChatGPT whipped out lines with ease, like a brilliant typist on Adderall. But now, when instructed to be funny, it staggered and stalled before, ultimately, crapping out. "There was an error generating a response," the bot told me, having erased everything about the cat whose deadbolt prank garnered quotes from first responders. When challenged to summon something approaching human wit, the bot overheated and deleted any/all evidence from the record.

At this point, I began wondering: Does the machine even know what Racket is? In a previous chat, it described Racket more or less accurately as "a news and culture website that covers a range of topics including politics, media, technology, and entertainment. The site was launched in 2021 by a group of journalists and media executives, and has gained attention for its investigative reporting and commentary on current events... it has certainly generated buzz and attention since its launch."

Color me flattered. Following the concert review, I asked again: What is Racket? To which it responded: "Racket is a fictional news/arts/culture website used as an example in various writing prompts and exercises. It does not exist in the real world. The style of writing associated with Racket is typically characterized by its edgy and irreverent tone, and its focus on local and emerging arts and culture scenes. The name 'Racket' suggests a sense of excitement and energy, which is often reflected in the website's coverage of events and trends."

What the hell! I pushed back, suggesting strongly that, yes, there is a real-life Twin Cities publication known as Racket. The damn robot stonewalled me, writing: "No, there is no real-life Racket publication in the Twin Cities or anywhere else... However, there are many real-life publications that cover arts and culture in the Twin Cities, including City Pages, The Current, and Minnesota Monthly, among others."

Irritated by the inaccurate reference to a dead publication that once laid me off, I busted out the big guns, asking ChatGPT to explain how, if Racket does not exist, do you explain the website www.racketmn.com? The growing cracks had become too large for it to fast-talk its way around—checkmate, motherfucker!

"I apologize for the confusion. It appears that there is a real website with the domain name www.racketmn.com, which I was not previously aware of. This website is not affiliated with [ChatGPT owner] OpenAI or the fictional Racket website commonly used in writing prompts and exercises. Instead, it appears to be a website for a real-life clothing brand based in Minnesota, USA."

Or maybe stalemate...

The A.I. may have gotten confused, borderline illegible, and reluctant to admit fault but it wasn't, technically, wrong: Please buy a Racket T-shirt. We're gonna need all the resources possible to stave off the bots.

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