Artificial Intelligence and travel writing


Google - OpenAI  displayed on screen with ChatGPT on mobile seen in this photo illustration. On 17 February 2023 in Brussels, Belgium.

Photo credit: Jonathan Raa| AFP

Last week, I focused on what the AI application, ChatGPT, predicts Kenya will be like in 2043. In less than five seconds, it produced a well-reasoned and well-written article, based on what its bank of computers had gleaned from relevant material on Kenya published up to 2021. As I said, I found the application both amazing and frightening.

At the end of my piece, I wondered how ChatGPT would perform as a travel writer. So I put it to the test.

First, I asked the application to write a travel article of 650 words – the same number as Going Places – on a stay at Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo West. It was churned out in about three seconds. Here is its first paragraph:

‘Nestled deep within the heart of Tsavo West National Park, Kenya, lies the enchanting Kiliguni Lodge. This hidden gem offers travelers an unparalleled safari experience that combines luxurious comfort with the untamed beauty of Africa's wild landscapes. From awe-inspiring wildlife encounters to sumptuous accommodations, Kiliguni Lodge is a haven for those seeking adventure and relaxation in equal measure.’

‘Nestled deep within the heart of Tsavo’, ‘hidden gem’, ‘untamed beauty of Africa’s wild landscapes’, ‘sumptuous accommodation’ – this is PR speak, isn’t it? And this is how the piece proceeds. ChatGPT’s computers must have scanned plenty of travel agency stuff on Kilaguni Lodge and Tsavo West. There is little that is specific. There is no advice on particular places to visit from the lodge, such as the Mzima Springs, with its under-water glass cage for viewing hippos and fish, or the Shetani lava flows, formed only a few hundred years ago when, as the local villagers believed, the devil himself appeared.

Above all, what is missing from this ChatGPT’s article is something essential in good travel writing: the actual experience and viewpoint of the writer – a quality in the writing such that readers can feel they are almost experiencing and seeing for themselves what is being described. There should be touches of humour, too – the writer having an eye for the bizarre and the extraordinary.

Last week we visited two art galleries: Paa ya Paa off Ridgeway Road and the One Off Contemporary Art Gallery in Rosslyn Lone Tree Estate. I set ChatGPT another challenge: ‘Write 650 words on the contribution made to the Kenya art scene by Paa ya Paa and the One Off galleries. With hardly a pause, the article appeared on my laptop.

The article is more detailed than the Kilaguni piece. It gives examples of exhibitions held and artists supported. This is the concluding paragraph:

‘Both Paa ya Paa Gallery and One Off Gallery have not only contributed to the growth and diversification of the Kenyan art scene but have also played pivotal roles in positioning Kenyan art on the global stage. Their commitment to nurturing talent, promoting contemporary art forms, and addressing societal issues through art has left an indelible mark on the country's cultural landscape. As they continue to evolve and adapt to the changing art world, these galleries will undoubtedly remain influential pillars of the Kenyan art scene for years to come.’

It is a fitting summary of the argument presented in the article. However, there is one glaring issue: it implies that Paa ya Paa is still operating. It isn’t. The gallery is still there; you can see a retained store of paintings and sculptures, but there are no more exhibitions or artists in residence. Elimo is 91 years old. When we went to chat with him and his wife last week we found Elimo enjoying his retirement.

And my conclusion about ChatGPT’s travel writing? As well as lacking a writer’s personal viewpoint, it can get things wrong, like its misspelling of Kilaguni and giving the wrong date for the founding of One Off. I think I will still have a correspondent’s role with the Sunday Nation in a few years’ time!

John Fox is Chairman of iDC. Email: [email protected]