Sunday morning, while drowsily opening emails and taking my first sips of coffee, I was jolted fully awake by the sight of an ad in which machines offered to take over the pesky little chore of writing this blog.
Until recently, I never considered robots serious competition as writers. In my experience, most bots seemed bent on proving they were total knuckleheads possessing zero common sense and only a passing acquaintance with the English language.
But recent improvements have culminated in the interactive super-brain ChatGPT that has inspired awe, fear, and fascination around the world. More than a million people have signed on to test its linguistic virtuosity. A spokesperson for its creator, the for-profit research lab OpenAI, warns that ChatGPT "may occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information." Ya think? Clearly we’d all be wise not to trust it too far.
Not everyone shares my concern. “I’m sorry,” tweeted one Thomas Ptacek, “I simply cannot be cynical about a technology that can accomplish this.”
Jesus crust, I have to admit that’s pretty good writing, even if the author will never get why humans think it’s funny. Sadly, the AI that wants to take over my blog isn’t nearly as talented. The ad I got Sunday is full of grammatical errors — ten howlers in just fifty-two words. See if you can find any in this fragment, starting with the headline.
Alert readers will have noticed the singular subject (Writing) is inappropriately paired with a plural verb (are). Rich keeps reminding me that I’m overly picky about this stuff but hey, it’s my job. And if AI is serious about wanting my job, it’s going to have to try considerably harder than that.
But truth be told, I’m not really worried machines will replace me as a travel writer. High-end chatbots are good at reprocessing existing information, and no doubt our inboxes will soon be flooded with articles about the five top things to see in this city or that, all based on TripAdvisor (whose ratings are notoriously unreliable). While bots can regurgitate content, they are never going to be able to savor mouthwatering Mediterranean comfort food or feel the transcendent joy of raising your voice in a vast, ancient space.
Let's face it, ChatGPT isn't about to jump on a train and seek out random adventures in strange lands. In fact, I imagine its giant brain would blow a gasket or fry an actuator if it heard about the next trip Rich and I are planning: The Nutters Tour.
The idea came to me when I was writing about forged Vermeers and ran across mention of the Fälschermuseum. “Hey, Rich,” I said, “some nutter has created a museum devoted entirely to art fakes.” We got to talking about eccentric people creating wacky places, and before you could say “bonkers to the max,” we’d agreed our next road trip would be spent discovering oddball places designed by people who clearly had more than a few screws loose.
“We'll call it ‘The Nutters Tour,’” I said.
“But then everyone will think it means us, that we’re the nutters,” protested Rich.
“Well, that’s not entirely inaccurate... OK, no, you’re right, we’ll find another name.” We’re still casting about for one, but until we find it, The Nutters Tour it is.
What exactly are we looking for? Five hundred years ago, the people designing Seville’s cathedral declared, “Let’s build a church so large that those who see it will think we are mad.” Today visitors often say, “Man, this church is insane!” That’s the kind of nutter spirit I’m talking about.
Hearing about the trip, my friend Deborah immediately recommended the Villa Torrigiani di Camigliano near Lucca, Italy. The gardens were built in the seventeenth century, when giochi d'acqua (water games) were all the rage. On rainy days the marquis would chase his guests into the garden, where they would try to shelter in the Temple of Flora, only to find the ceiling raining water down on them. Obviously this was much more amusing for the marquis than his soggy guests.
Another of the villa’s loony features is a grotto of sexually explicit stalactites. Yes, Deborah sent me a photo; if there are small children peering over your shoulder, you might suggest they go play elsewhere while you give it a gander.
Whoa! Steamy stuff!
My friend Maer suggested a visit to Bomarzo, Italy, home of the Park of the Monsters. The landscape is a sixteenth-century version of a horror movie, a shocker built by the grief-stricken Prince Pier Francesco Orsini. He’d fought a brutal war, been held for ransom for years, and finally arrived home only to have his beloved wife die. He expressed his feelings by building this park of howling torment.
Obviously the world is full of nutters just waiting for us to discover them. So far, our tentative route begins in Valencia, where we’ll catch the run-up to the Fallas, a loony, city-wide festival. Then we'll cross into France, stopping in Montpellier, Marseilles, and Nice before heading south through Italy; our itinerary isn’t fixed, but we’re thinking of Lucca, Bomarzo, Rome, and Naples. With luck we’ll visit Bagonregio, home to Italy’s only UFO museum, currently closed but possibly willing to open for us if asked nicely. We’re hoping to have time to continue south as far as Sicily. In May, we head to the US, flying out of … wherever we find ourselves at the time.
Should I ask ChatGPT for suggestions? I don’t think so. For a start, doing the research is half the fun. I’ve passed many delightful hours browsing through the suggestions of Atlas Obscura, Rough Guides, and other sites I’m pretty sure were authored by humans.
Besides, I don’t want to encourage ChatGPT, which industry insiders suggest may soon be ruling the planet, with or without my support. AI expert Calum Chace says the software will continue learning, and humans may soon discover we're "the second-smartest species on the planet. It will be the most important event in human history. Bar none. The outcome may well be fabulous for humanity, but that is not guaranteed." So when you do interact with robots, play nice with the species that’s about to become our new overlords.
But what, me worry? ChatGPT may be able to beat chess experts and adopt the writing style of the King James Bible, but it will never embrace the kind of wacky, off-the-wall places and experiences that give this planet — and so many travel blogs — that nutter zing.
I'm not taking suggestions from robots, but I'm happy to hear yours. Do you know of any places I should add to the Nutters Tour? Please tell me about them in the comments section below.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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