How AI Could Write a 500 Words Academic Thesis in Less Than 2 Hours

On a rainy afternoon earlier this year, I logged in to my OpenAI account and typed a simple instruction for the company’s artificial intelligence algorithm, GPT-3: ‘Write an academic thesis in 500 words about GPT-3 and add scientific references and citations inside the text.’

As it started to generate text, I stood in awe. Here was novel content written in academic language, with well-grounded references cited in the right places and in relation to the right context. It looked like any other introduction to a fairly good scientific publication. Given the very vague instruction I provided, I didn’t have any high expectations: I’m a scientist who studies ways to use artificial intelligence to treat mental health concerns, and this wasn’t my first experimentation with AI or GPT-3, a deep-learning algorithm that analyzes a vast stream of information to create text on command. Yet there I was, staring at the screen in amazement. The algorithm was writing an academic paper about itself.

My attempts to complete that paper and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal have opened up a series of ethical and legal questions about publishing, as well as philosophical arguments about nonhuman authorship. Academic publishing may have to accommodate a future of AI-driven manuscripts, and the value of a human researcher’s publication records may change if something nonsentient can take credit for some of their work.

GPT-3 is well known for its ability to create humanlike text, but it’s not perfect. Still, it has written a news articleproduced books in 24 hours and created new content from deceased authors. But it dawned on me that, although a lot of academic papers had been written about GPT-3, and with the help of GPT-3, none that I could find had made GPT-3 the main author of its own work.

That’s why I asked the algorithm to take a crack at an academic thesis. As I watched the program work, I experienced that feeling of disbelief one gets when you watch a natural phenomenon: Am I really seeing this triple rainbow happen? With that success in mind, I contacted the head of my research group and asked if a full GPT-3-penned paper was something we should pursue. He, equally fascinated, agreed.

Some stories about GPT-3 allow the algorithm to produce multiple responses and then publish only the best, most humanlike excerpts. We decided to give the program prompts—nudging it to create sections for an introduction, methods, results and discussion, as you would for a scientific paper—but interfere as little as possible. We were only to use the first (and at most the third) iteration from GPT-3, and we would refrain from editing or cherry-picking the best parts. Then we would see how well it does.

We chose to have GPT-3 write a paper about itself for two simple reasons. First, GPT-3 is fairly new, and as such, there are fewer studies about it. This means it has less data to analyze about the paper’s topic. In comparison, if it were to write a paper on Alzheimer’s disease, it would have reams of studies to sift through, and more opportunities to learn from existing work and increase the accuracy of its writing.

Secondly, if it got things wrong (e.g. if it suggested an outdated medical theory or treatment strategy from its training database), as all AI sometimes does, we wouldn’t be necessarily spreading AI-generated misinformation in our effort to publish – the mistake would be part of the experimental command to write the paper. GPT-3 writing about itself and making mistakes doesn’t mean it still can’t write about itself, which was the point we were trying to prove. Once we designed this proof-of-principle test, the fun really began. In response to my prompts, GPT-3 produced a paper in just two hours. But as I opened the submission portal for our chosen journal (a well-known peer-reviewed journal in machine intelligence) I encountered my first problem: what is GPT-3’s last name? As it was mandatory to enter the last name of the first author, I had to write something, and I wrote “None.” The affiliation was obvious (, but what about phone and e-mail? I had to resort to using my contact information and that of my advisor, Steinn Steingrimsson.