Once in 2 weeks (or as the ever-confusing term goes, biweekly), I do a live stream with a good friend, Pranav Joshi called Patthar Ke Fools. It is a freewheeling conversation about a specific food topic and promises its viewers utter and complete absurdity and a total lack of seriousness. The name itself is a cringeworthy pun on a rather underrated spice called Patthar ke Phool (Stone Flower – a lichen with a smoky, almost truffle-like subtlety used in Tamil and Maharashtrian cooking).
After 2 episodes on Salt and Sugar respectively, we picked Fats as the theme for Episode 3, and as one does nowadays, I decided to seek the guidance of our Lord and Saviour, ChatGPT, for some inspiration before going live.
The very first answer made me do a bit of Vadivelian double-take (memorably captured by this gif)
because the idea of using butter as currency seemed, on the face of it, slightly odd. While I’m not necessarily the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to personal finance and economics, it doesn’t take a Samurai sword to realize that currencies in general don’t tend to be things that disintegrate at room temperature. I mean, ghee as currency, I can still accept, although liquids tend to present their own challenges when used as monetary instruments. Being financially liquid is not something one interprets literally, but we digress.
So, before I embarrassed myself going live and boldly claiming that Indians were actually “greasing each other’s palms” with butter back in the day, I asked ChatGPT a follow-up question.
And I can only imagine that a few million nodes in a neural network did the silicon equivalent of “how dare this puny, cognitively challenged human being ask me for evidence?” because this is how its answer started
And it proceeded to unleash Exhibit A.
Ok. Cows as currency is not unknown. In fact, they are still valuable commodities of trade among several tribal communities around the world today, but the logical leap from that to butter as currency felt a bit like an Olympic high jumper on anabolic steroids. But it was the next point that intrigued me further.
Alright. Now, very few people have actually read the Atharva Veda, but I’m reasonably familiar with the Mahabharata and I most certainly did not recall any butter-based wager, so I pressed further.
And it responded with the confidence of a techbro claiming that blockchain will solve global poverty
For starters – we need more than a like and dislike button as feedback. There needs to be “Holy Mother of Melmaruvathur” button as well. I mean, I’ve read the Amar Chitra Katha version, I’ve watched the Doordarshan series, and even read the full, unabridged version of the epic, but I do not recall any quadripedal perambulation by Dharmaraja as a penalty for losing that famous game of dice. And I most certainly did not recall him handing over half kg bricks of butter to Duryodhana, Sakuni et al. So at this point, I realized that the bot was, to put it mildly, pulling a fast one, so I decided to investigate everything that Yudhishtira actually wagered and lost in that game.
It is pretty obvious the ACK and Doordarshan versions vastly shortened and simplified that infamous game. Here is the full sequence of things that he wagered and lost (along with some value-adding, insightful commentary from me)
- Pearls that surfaced during the churning of the ocean – Clearly our man started out small, just to test the waters
- Gold and Silver – Like seasoned gamblers do, our man must’ve gone – “Sakuni must have beginner’s luck, so now’s the time to take it to the next level”
- Royal chariot + 8 steeds – This is the part when the dude has no cash left on his person, so he goes “Imma bet my BMW 5-series parked outside”
- 100,000 serving girls who are young, have beautiful earrings, and can serve food 24×7 – 😳 OK. Um. So, at this point, he’s like – “You can have my BPO operation”
- 1000 elephants (each one had 8 she-elephants) – I have a warehouse full of trucks. I bet those.
- Warriors – You can have my army
- Super famous Gandharva Stallions – I bet my mutual funds
- 10,000 draught animals – You can have my farmhouse near Gurgaon
- 400 sheets of copper and iron – I wager my mining operations in conflict zones
- (Not kidding – this is from the original) tens of thousands and millions and millions and tens of millions and hundreds of millions and tens of billions and hundreds of billions and trillions and tens of trillions and hundreds of trillions and tens of quadrillions and hundreds of quadrillions and even more wealth – At this point, Yudhishtira was running NFT and Crypto scams to continue to be in the game
- Lots of milch cows and goats – Aha, 100,000 serving girls, a fuckton of jewellery and a savanna-ful of herbivores later, he finally gets to his most precious possession – cows and goats.
- Entire city and country minus the Brahmins who advise him – As they say in the business, consultants never lose
- Princes – At this point, we’ve entered human-trafficking territory
- Nakula – Hmmm..let me think. Who is the most useless of the Pandavas?
- Sahadeva – Tell me again what this chap does?
- Arjuna – Hmm, this fellow always had a very high opinion of his archery skills
- Bhima – I wager Ser Gregor Clegane
- Himself – I got nothin’ else
- Draupadi – Oh wait, I still have my wife who I technically cannot wager cos I am now property of Duryodhana but WTH Lulz worth a shot
Anyway, the crux of the matter is that there was no butter being wagered among all the jewellery, mineral resources, livestock and human beings. So, why did ChatGPT make this stuff up? If you are expecting a deep, technical analysis of Large Language Models, you will be disappointed. I can’t debug it any more than its own developers can. Turns out, explainability is indeed a bit of a problem, but a few other thoughts did come to mind.
It’s not like human beings don’t make stuff up. We do it all the time. In fact, one of my LinkedIn core competencies is the ability to stitch together 4 threads of fact with 100 threads of creative fabrication. Eyewitnesses regularly make stuff up under oath. Godmen regularly claim to confabulate with the divine. Children make up excuses with hilariously cute incompetence. Maybe we are also probabilistic auto-complete machines powered by wetware instead of software?
I don’t know. Maybe I should ask ChatGPT.
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