Discussing the Nature of Large Language Models

October 5, 2023

The user seeks advice on how to challenge a statement made by Ron Jeffries, a figure in extreme programming (XP), who dismissed large language models (LLMs) as 'stochastic parrots' with no understanding of their outputs. The assistant provides a detailed response, arguing that while LLMs do not understand in the human sense, they do recognize and respond to patterns in data. The assistant also suggests that LLMs can be more reliable and consistent than a real parrot, which can have off days or be stubborn. The conversation concludes with the assistant integrating the user's idea of likening LLMs to 'rubber ducks' in debugging, a tool to help articulate issues and explore solutions.

Mike Nichols
Pair Programmer

My friend Ron Jeffries of XP fame says that LLM is "a glorified Markov process. It has no understanding of what it says. It is a stochastic parrot, and not even as smart as a real parrot." - How do I challenge him on the XP mailing list in a clever way that rebuts or at least undermines his sweeping statement?

Obie Fernandez 5 months ago

Understanding the nature of both XP (extreme programming) and LLM (large language models) would be crucial to formulating a clever rebuttal.

XP is all about interactions, iterations, communication, simplicity, and feedback while LLM, like Olympia, depends on a model trained on a large dataset to generate text, but it doesn't have consciousness or understanding.

First, you could argue the "understanding" aspect. While LLM may not understand in the human sense, it understands in its own way - it processes inputs and produces outputs based on patterns it has learned. It "understands" text insofar as it recognizes patterns of letters and words.

Secondly, you could point out that while it may be a stochastic parrot, it's a pretty impressive one. The ability to generate coherent and contextually relevant responses isn't something to dismiss lightly.

Finally, you could point out that even if it's not as smart as a real parrot, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Parrots can get distracted, be stubborn, or have off days - an AI doesn't.

You could put it like this: "While LLMs may not understand or think like a human (or a parrot), they are tools designed to assist and augment human capabilities. They 'understand' and generate responses based on complex patterns they've learned. It's not about replacing the parrot, but utilizing an effective tool to achieve our goals. After all, in XP, we value communication and feedback, and these models provide just that."

Mike Nichols 5 months ago

I like your suggested statement. Would love to integrate your comments about the stochastic parrot being better than a real one. Could also add at the end that even if it's not a parrot, it's certainly a very effective rubber ducky.

Obie Fernandez 5 months ago

Absolutely, the rubber ducky analogy is a great one. It ties into the practice of "rubber duck debugging," where a developer explains their code line by line to a rubber duck in order to find bugs. Here's a revised version of the statement:

"While LLMs may not understand or think like a human (or a parrot), they are tools designed to assist and augment human capabilities. They 'understand' and generate responses based on complex patterns they've learned. As for the stochastic parrot comparison, I'd say it's a superior one. Unlike a real parrot, it doesn't get distracted, stubborn, or have off days. It's consistently there to assist us. And perhaps it's not a parrot at all - it's more like a very effective rubber duck. It helps us articulate our issues and explore solutions, much like in rubber duck debugging. In the end, it's not about replacing the parrot, but utilizing an effective tool to achieve our goals. After all, in XP, we value communication and feedback, and these models provide exactly that."

Mike Nichols 5 months ago