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In early 2021, a Wikipedia editor peered into the future and saw what looked like a funnel cloud on the horizon: the rise of GPT-3, a precursor to the new chatbots from OpenAI. When this editor — a prolific Wikipedian who goes by the handle Barkeep49 on the site — gave the new technology a try, he could see that it was untrustworthy. The bot would readily mix fictional elements (a false name, a false academic citation) into otherwise factual and coherent answers. But he had no doubts about its potential. “I think A.I.’s day of writing a high-quality encyclopedia is coming sooner rather than later,” he wrote in “Death of Wikipedia,” an essay that he posted under his handle on Wikipedia itself. He speculated that a computerized model could, in time, displace his beloved website and its human editors, just as Wikipedia had supplanted the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which in 2012 announced it was discontinuing its print publication.
Recently, when I asked this editor if he still worried about his encyclopedia’s fate, he told me that the newer versions made him more convinced that ChatGPT was a threat. “It wouldn’t surprise me if things are fine for the next three years,” he said of Wikipedia, “and then, all of a sudden, in Year 4 or 5, things drop off a cliff.”
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Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Isabella Anderson, Anna Diamond, Sarah Diamond, Elena Hecht, Emma Kehlbeck, Tanya Pérez and Krish Seenivasan.