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Science & Tech Spotlight: Generative AI | U.S. GAO – Government Accountability Office

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U.S. Government Accountability Office
Generative AI systems—like ChatGPT and Bard—create text, images, audio, video, and other content. This Spotlight examines the technology behind these systems that are surging in popularity.
These systems are trained to recognize patterns and relationships in massive datasets and can quickly generate content from this data when prompted by a user. These growing capabilities could be used in education, government, medicine, law, and other fields.
But these systems can also generate “hallucinations”—misinformation that seems credible—and can be used to purposefully create false information. Other challenges include oversight and privacy concerns.
Illustration of AI showing hands typing on a laptop and cartoon sketches of different technology elements like circuits and interfaces.
Use of generative AI, such as ChatGPT and Bard, has exploded to over 100 million users due to enhanced capabilities and user interest. This technology may dramatically increase productivity and transform daily tasks across much of society. Generative AI may also spread disinformation and presents substantial risks to national security and in other domains.
What is it? Generative artificial intelligence (AI) is a technology that can create content, including text, images, audio, or video, when prompted by a user. Generative AI systems create responses using algorithms that are trained often on open-source information, such as text and images from the internet. However, generative AI systems are not cognitive and lack human judgment.
Generative AI has potential applications across a wide range of fields, including education, government, medicine, and law. Using prompts—questions or descriptions entered by a user to generate and refine the results—these systems can quickly write a speech in a particular tone, summarize complex research, or assess legal documents. Generative AI can also create artworks, including realistic images for video games, musical compositions, and poetic language, using only text prompts. In addition, it can aid complex design processes, such as designing molecules for new drugs or generating programming codes.
How does it work? Generative AI systems learn patterns and relationships from massive amounts of data, which enables them to generate new content that may be similar, but not identical, to the underlying training data. They process and create content using sophisticated machine learning algorithms and statistical models. For example, large language models use training data to learn patterns in written language. Generative AI can then use models to emulate a human writing style. Generative AI can also learn to use many other data types, including programming codes, molecular structures, or images.
The systems generally require a user to submit prompts that guide the generation of new content (see fig. 1). Many iterations may be required to produce the intended result because generative AI is sensitive to the wording of prompts.
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Figure 1. Example of a generative AI system creating an image from prompts.
How mature is it? Advanced chatbots, virtual assistants, and language translation tools are mature generative AI systems in widespread use. Improved computing power that can process large amounts of data for training has expanded generative AI capabilities. As of early 2023, emerging generative AI systems have reached more than 100 million users and attracted global attention to their potential applications. For example, a research hospital is piloting a generative AI program to create responses to patient questions and reduce the administrative workload of health care providers. Other companies could adapt pre-trained models to improve communications with customers.
For more information, contact Brian Bothwell at (202) 512-6888 or bothwellb@gao.gov and Kevin Walsh at (202) 512-6151 or walshk@gao.gov.
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