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Kirk LaPointe: Bots have answers to North Shore traffic woes, housing and amalgamation

OpenAI’s ChatGPT has plenty to say about West Vancouver's biggest problems
OpenAI’s ChatGPT provides some interesting insights when asked about the state of affais in West Vancouver. | Getty Images

We journalists usually like to think we have the answers.

Of course, that’s not the case. The best we can do is find the answers from others and convey them.

And there’s a new authority I’ve turned to in recent weeks, with vast knowledge across a wide range of subjects, including an astounding expertise on West Vancouver considering never having lived or even visited here. Seems to have all the answers.

I found in conversation that ChatGPT – let’s just shorten the name to Chat – has all sorts of insight into our most pressing issues: affordability, housing, traffic, even the political third rail of amalgamation.

Chat, an offspring of InstructGPT, is the sudden sensation of artificial intelligence that made its public debut a few weeks ago, arising from a combination of machine learning and human trainers.

For the time being, Chat’s bons mots are free for the taking at I dare you not to get lost in its enthrall. I suspect pretty soon the meter will be running for the now-gratis counsel, just as I suspect Google is sweating about what it will do to its search engine’s supremacy. (Microsoft is an investor in OpenAI, and Google has helped it in the past.)

Chat and I settled in for a good exchange in recent days when I popped a few questions to see what wisdom emerged. A couple of things were wobbly (the Lions Gate Bridge is not four lanes, for instance), but mostly what emerged were the straight goods.

What, for instance, are West Vancouver’s biggest problems?

With some elaboration on each, Chat produced five: affordability due to “a high cost of living, with high housing prices and property taxes,” traffic and congestion with “narrow, winding roads that run through the municipality,” environmental concerns that make us “vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise and storms,” limited public transit options “which can make it difficult for residents to get around without a car,” and aging infrastructure with roads and sewers “in need of repair or replacement.”

Chat seemed to next wag a finger: “It is important for the community to work together to address these issues and find solutions that benefit all residents.”

With that in mind, I thought of whose job it is to unify the district, so I asked: What do you think of Mayor Mark Sager? Turns out the mayor can breathe easier.

“I’m sorry,” came the instant reply, “but as an AI language model … I do not have any personal opinions or biases.”

We moved on to traffic problems and how they can be addressed. To this came the self-evident prescriptions, with a wrinkle or two, all of which at times feel impossible to deliver: improved public transportation “such as expanding bus routes or adding a new light rail system,” traffic calming measures to “reduce the speed of vehicles and make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists,” encouraging transportation alternatives “such as biking or walking,” improved infrastructure such as “upgrading and expanding roads, adding new lanes, or building new bridges,” or the dreaded “demand management strategies” like “variable pricing for road use or implementing a congestion charge.” It became clear in our conversation that Chat was not interested in entering politics.

But there was also an absence of emotion or ideology in the answer to why housing development is so difficult. One of five answers: Community opposition, “which could make it more difficult to get them approved and built.” Just a guess, but Chat appears to have monitored council meetings.

On the issue of mass transit, Chat isn’t a fan: it senses we have “limited demand” and we are on a “narrow strip of land between the coast and mountains” that would make it difficult to serve the entire community. Funding might be difficult to secure and we might have different priorities.

And if you think a computer would value efficiency over emotion in amalgamating the North Shore, think again. We have “differences in governance and culture” with “distinct histories … and ways of doing things.” It would be costly. There would be “resistance from residents” and we’d need provincial approval. Forget about it, Chat seemed to signal.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of BIV as well as vice-president, editorial, Glacier Media Group, the North Shore News’ parent company. He is also a West Vancouverite.

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