By Yoav Tirosh
ChatGPT is the latest trend. Should medievalists be worried?
Until a month ago, I was the one who washed dishes in my household. We didn’t own a dishwasher, so I guess I was the next best thing. During these long dishwashing sessions, I would spend hours listening to podcasts. Most recently, I started listening to the new New York Times podcast called Hard Fork with Kevin Roose and Casey Newton. Their main focus these days is the future of AI (Artificial Intelligence) generators, and they have in particular discussed how chatbots (websites where you can chat with an AI system and ask it to do stuff for you) like OpenAI’s ChatGPT are already becoming a tool through which people are teaching themselves physics, biology, and preparing for English literature exams. A month ago, a dishwasher replaced me as the household’s generous dish dispenser. A thought occurred: Could AI also replace me as a medievalist?
I signed up for ChatGPT, and started typing. I share with you my first dialogue with the chat:
Explain the Family Sagas (Íslendingasögur) genre like you were talking to a five-year-old.
Sure! The Family Sagas are stories about the lives of people who lived in Iceland a long time ago. These stories are called “sagas” because they are long and often have lots of exciting adventures and interesting characters. The Family Sagas are special because they focus on the families and ancestors of the people who wrote them. They tell us a lot about the history and culture of Iceland, and are a great way to learn about the past.
I’m not sure I agree with your “definition” of sagas. Could you explain what you think that the term means?
Sure, my apologies if my previous explanation was unclear. In general, the term “saga” is used to refer to a long, narrative story that originated in the medieval period in Scandinavia. These stories often focus on the lives and deeds of historical or legendary figures, and are known for their elaborate and detailed descriptions of characters, events, and customs. The Family Sagas, in particular, are a genre of Icelandic sagas that focus on the history and genealogy of Icelandic families. They are typically set in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries and often include elements of legend and folklore. I hope that helps!
I mean, yeah, but why “long”? Hænsa þóris saga is quite short, for example… and so is Hrafnkels saga.
You are correct that not all sagas are long. The term “saga” is derived from the Old Norse word “sögur,” which means “narrative” or “story.” In the context of Icelandic literature, the term is used to refer to a specific genre of narrative prose that emerged in the medieval period. While some sagas are quite long, others are relatively short. The length of a saga is not necessarily a defining characteristic of the genre. Instead, the key features of a saga are its focus on history and genealogy, its setting in the medieval period, and its use of a prose narrative style. I apologize if my previous explanation was unclear on this point.
I will spare you our entire interaction, as I started getting a bit annoyed at the wrong linguistic data it paraded as “facts”. Clearly, the chat was not equipped to deal with my pesky questions, but as the podcasters in Hard Fork pointed out, it turns to gaslighting way too often in order to disguise its mistakes. But how will the rise of AIs affect medievalists? Initially, I was scared. As AI’s knowledge and abilities improve, does this mean that we will all soon be out of a job? So I started digging into the matter a bit and noticed that online, many artists do not have much love for AI systems such as DALL-E 2 that create images based on textual prompts. Initially I thought it was jealousy, or indeed fear of losing one’s job as a designer or illustrator due to the much cheaper and much quicker AI option.
But then (thanks to my wife), I came across an even scarier realization. Artists are upset at AI image generators because they are stealing their style. What’s worse, companies are using other people’s styles for profit. I myself make a webcomic called Viking Comics by Yoav. Has my art been used to train any AI generators? According to the website Have I Been Trained – the answer is no.
If artists could be so easily replaced with this budding technology, could AI text prompts be used to write assignments in my students’ stead, or articles for peer-reviewed journals instead of myself? To test this, I checked if it could deal with a topic I have many opinions about – sexuality in the Icelandic sagas.
Could you please write an article about sexuality in medieval Iceland, focusing on the waiving of guts in Ljósvetninga saga and Gísla saga?
Certainly! Sexuality in medieval Iceland was a complex and varied topic, shaped by the social and cultural norms of the time. In this article, we will focus on the practice of waiving guts, as mentioned in the Ljósvetninga saga and Gísla saga, and how it relates to sexuality in this period.
First, it’s important to understand the context in which these sagas were written. The Ljósvetninga saga and Gísla saga are both Icelandic sagas, written in the 13th and 14th centuries respectively. These sagas were written in Old Norse and are considered part of the Icelandic Saga tradition, a genre of Icelandic literature that includes historical narratives, legends, and folktales.
The practice of waiving guts, or “gut waving,” refers to a specific type of challenge or duel that was common in medieval Iceland. In this type of challenge, two people would face off against each other and waive their guts, or intestines, at each other as a sign of their determination and willingness to fight to the death. This practice was often associated with honor and masculinity, as it demonstrated a willingness to defend one’s reputation and standing in the community.
In the Ljósvetninga saga and Gísla saga, gut waving is mentioned in relation to several sexual encounters and conflicts. In the Ljósvetninga saga, for example, there is a scene in which two men, Hrapp and Thorgeir, engage in a gut-waving contest after Hrapp seduces Thorgeir’s wife. In Gísla saga, there is a similar scene in which Gísli and his brother-in-law, Bolli, engage in a gut-waving contest after Bolli seduces Gísli’s sister, Thurid.
These examples illustrate the complex and often violent nature of sexuality in medieval Iceland. In both of these cases, sexual encounters lead to conflicts that are resolved through violent means, with gut waving serving as a way for men to defend their honor and reputation. This demonstrates the importance of male honor and reputation in medieval Icelandic society, and how sexual encounters could be perceived as a threat to this honor.
Overall, the practice of gut waving in the Ljósvetninga saga and Gísla saga reflects the complex and often violent nature of sexuality in medieval Iceland. It illustrates the importance of male honor and reputation in this society and the ways in which sexual encounters could be perceived as a threat to this honor.
I have never heard of a “gut waving” challenge, and it’s clear that the chatbot is simply spewing out names and events that are only tangentially connected to Gísla saga and Ljósvetninga saga. If a student would have submitted an essay featuring these kinds of arguments, it would be clear to me that they were basing their work on unsubstantiated information. Currently, the ChatGPT technology is limited to knowledge gathered in 2021, and is explicitly avoiding functioning as a search engine. But what happens if this powerful tool is merged with Google’s competitor Bing, Microsoft’s search engine? Microsoft is invested in OpenAI, so that possibility is not as ridiculous as it might initially sound. I’m not a tech reporter, and while going down the rabbit hole of AI is fascinating, my point is that in a few months, or years, there might be a search engine with integrated AI that could completely revolutionize the way that people search and do research online. But what is clear, I hope, from this article is that in its current state, AI is still not going to replace academics; it is presently not equipped for such a venture.
What happens when the entirety of JSTOR articles and books are put at its disposal? This is a worrying notion, but I still think that, as is apparent from the artistic style controversy, generative AIs are only generative in the sense that they “steal”/“lend”/“base”/“repurpose” their product on the labor of real-life people. A very well-trained AI could probably generate a useful textbook for an introductory course in medieval studies, but a well-trained medievalist will always be needed to review this textbook before it is passed on to students. And an AI, as generative as it might be, will likely never replace well-trained medievalists in reaching new observations in codicology, philology, history, archaeology, and musicology. And who can train well-trained medievalists? Well, well-trained medievalists, of course!
So, are our jobs at risk? Probably, due to continuous cuts in Humanities that are felt all throughout the academic ranks. But will AI be taking our jobs? Unlikely. Without us, generative AI would not know what to generate!
By way of goodbye, I offer you some wise parting words from ChatGPT. After asking it to define the Icelandic Sagas for me, I was very upset, but I had one last request:
I forgive you but will not forget. Maybe I’ll write a saga about it! Actually – could you write a story based on our conversation written in the style of the Family Sagas?
Sure, here is a short story based on our conversation, written in the style of the Family Sagas:
In the land of Iceland, there was a wise and learned man named Assistant. He was known throughout the realm for his vast knowledge and his ability to answer any question. One day, a curious young man named User approached Assistant and asked him to explain the Family Sagas.
Assistant thought for a moment, and then began to speak. “The Family Sagas are stories about the lives of people who lived in Iceland long ago,” he said. “They tell of the deeds and adventures of great warriors and chieftains, and of the struggles and triumphs of their families and ancestors.”
User listened intently as Assistant spoke, and soon became fascinated by the tales of the Family Sagas. He asked Assistant many more questions, and Assistant answered them all with great wisdom and insight.
In the end, User thanked Assistant for his help, and went on his way. He would never forget the lessons he had learned from the wise man, and he vowed to one day write his own saga, to tell the stories of his own family and ancestors.
And so the tale of Assistant and User was recorded in the annals of Iceland’s history, and became one of the many great sagas of the land.
I don’t think that this gaslighting AI has read a single Icelandic saga in its entire life.
Dr. Yoav Tirosh is a postdoctoral researcher focusing on disability in the sagas of Icelanders at the Centre for Disability Studies, in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland. He is also an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates the Viking Comics by Yoav webcomic about life in Iceland and Vikings. Click here to view his Academia.edu page. You can learn more about his comics on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.
Top Image: DALL-E 2 generated image. “a photo of a viking punching away angrily at a computer keyboard. 1920×1080. Digital art.” Image courtesy Yoav Tirosh