281 years in the making: GPT-3 and de la Mettrie

4 min readJan 26, 2022

Today two books came ended up on my desk, one published last year (experimentation guide with a git-hub example library for GPT-3) and one published in 1741 (Man a Machine, By Julien Offray de la Mettrie).

So I did what anyone having these two books in front them would do; I let GPT-3 write a sample of how it would have completed de la Mettrie’s work.

Man, A Machine

Although de la Mettrie never spoke specifically about technology; being an engineer and a physician, standing in the middle of the rise of the industrial age must have prompted him to write this brilliant (although sometimes very fragmented) essay.

Illustration: Fritz Kahn (1888–1968)

Bold statements, way ahead of their time.

It was a piece of work which deviated from litterary work of its time. It had a bold approach in describing the body as a singular system (instead of a mare box used by divine powers) and the mind as a computing machine of which consciousness arose (and not a parallel entity belonging to a spiritual world). It is written from a naturalist perspective, a strong statement against dualism and spiritualism. If one reads between the lines, it is also an early approach towards atheism. The essay was ahead of its time and took many risks. We have to remember, in 1741 we still burned those which strayed from social, religious or political norms. de la Mettrie published his work knowing this, and embraced any and all consequences.

Baptism by fire, 1682 Avakum

282 years later, many of his observations ring true to our relationship with systems and technology. They also reflect quite many observations we have made regarding the nature of consciousness.

So, with these two book in front of me I checked: what would GPT-3 contribute to de la Mettrie

GPT-3 results


de la Mettrie: Man is so complicated a machine that it is impossibleto get a clear idea of the machine beforehand, and hence impossibl to define it. The human body is a machine which winds its own springs. It is the living image of perpetual movement.


GPT-3 (davinci-001 — trial 12): We humans are constantly changing, growing and adapting to the ever-changing environment around us. Our physical and mental health is closely linked to our ability to adapt and thrive in a constantly changing world. We are constantly struggling to find our place and keep up with the fast-paced, ever-changing world.

It’s a good start. Not a perfect completion but a good starting point.

I also tried generating a poem, this is what it said

The Machine — A GPT-3 Poem

The machine is composed of a thousand springs, and each one of these springs is a mystery.
The machine is a labyrinth in which we lose our way.
The machine is wound up at birth and it unwinds as lifeprogresses.
The winding is done by the parents and the unwinding is done by the children.
The machine is a combination of two sets of forces, the one set tending to drag it down, the other set tending to lift it up.
The downward force is the force of gravity, the upward force is the force of the spirit.
The spirit is the divine spark which is implanted in man at birth.
It is the force which lifts man up and carries him onward and upward.
It is the force which makes it possible for him to rise above the limitations of the physical world and to achieve the high destiny which is his birthright.

And in the end

de la Mettrie may have asked if man wasn’t just an elaborate machine, I myself wonder if machines aren’t just simplified people. And GPT-3 answers:

GPT-3 (davinci-001, first take)

Some people see man as an elaborate machine, while others see him as something more. No, machine is not just a simpler human. Machine has capabilities that go beyond those of humans. For example, machine can process and compute large amounts of data much faster than humans can.