“What do you think about Martha Stewart on the cover of Sports Illustrated?” I asked Jeff while he was relaxing in his chair after work with the remote, surfing around for some news.

“I haven’t thought about it at all,” he replied. “Is it something I need to think about?”

“I just wondered how you felt about seeing an 81-year-old woman on the cover of a magazine geared toward men, airbrushed to look like she’s in her mid-30s, posing in a bathing suit, rather insipidly, like some would-be ingenue, instead of the highly accomplished, formidable woman she is.”

“Just seems like more fake news to me,” cracked Jeff, still surfing away with the remote.

He didn’t even recognize the brilliance of his observation.

Reams have been written about fake news, of course – plenty of ‘em by me – but that is not where I want to go this week. Not exactly. It’s related, but it’s something else entirely. Let me explain . . .

Most everywhere you look, people are celebrating the appearance of Martha Stewart on the cover of our country’s premier Swimsuit Edition. They’re using terms like “groundbreaking,” and “paradigm-shifting.” A mature woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated! In a bathing suit! Looking fabulous!

 “You go, girl” is the general sentiment, and I’d love to join the party. I really would. But I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm.

Because here’s the thing: Martha Stewart’s not a girl. Not even close. And thanks to a rare combo of expensive “procedures” and Photoshop magic, this cover is not even close to an accurate representation of a normal 80-year-old woman. The whole celebration makes me uncomfortable. It feels like one more fake-out in a country where reality is becoming harder and harder to distinguish.

Or maybe it’s just getting easier to avoid.

Have you heard about preventative Botox? Apparently, if you start getting Botox in your 20s, your wrinkles will appear much later in life, if ever. All you have to do is paralyze your facial muscles every few months for several decades, and you’ll never look old. This regular maintenance is expensive, especially for a young person just getting started in life. And it involves needles. In your face. But it’s growing quite popular. That’s how far young women are willing to go to avoid looking their age in some faraway future.

(Were you even thinking about aging when you were in your 20s? Was it even on your radar? I was still dealing with zits, myself. “Regular maintenance,” for me, meant slathering on some Oxy10 every night before bed. But I digress.)

Most folks I talk to seem perfectly happy with this state of affairs. Me? I feel like I’m being dragged against my will into a dystopian future where nobody’s face expresses emotion, everybody looks the same age – young! – and robots write all the poetry.

You’ve heard about ChatGPT, right? The Artificial Intelligence language program that can spit out a solid essay on just about any topic imaginable in a matter of seconds?

Colleges and universities are twisting themselves in knots trying to figure out what this easy-access technology means for the future of higher education. How to keep students from cheating? How to ensure students are actually learning? Radical suggestions I’ve seen include bringing back the Blue Book and having students write all their essays in class. On paper. By hand.

One problem I see there is that too many students can’t write in cursive.

I wrote back in September of 2022, “Remember Common Core? Those controversial national education standards that everybody was arguing about back in 2010? Well, at least half the states have now abandoned those standards, but not before they left their mark. Apparently, cursive was omitted from Common Core in 2010 and never quite made a comeback.”

As a result, many college students today can neither read nor write cursive, so the idea of penning long, comprehensive essays by hand – while in the classroom – seems pretty far-fetched. There are no easy answers here.

The scary thing about an AI essay – or anything written by AI – is that it’s virtually impossible to tell it’s a fake. I know, because I tried!

I created a free account on the ChatGPT website – it’s super easy – and began asking questions. The first I asked was, “What is preventative Botox?”

(Where’d you think I got my info? The NY Times!?)

The article appeared almost immediately. It was well-composed, grammatically impeccable, and quite informative. (I fact-checked it!) There was an option following the article allowing me to “regenerate” it. I hit that button, and a different article on the same topic appeared – shorter, more concise, equally well written. Wow.

But surely it would be easy enough for a professor to detect a student’s use of AI, right? Wrong. I copied and pasted whole paragraphs from each article into Google and did searches. Nothing. As far as I could tell, these ChatGPT-generated articles appeared nowhere else on the internet. They are not “plagiarized,” per se. Though made up of information gathered elsewhere – like a normal research paper – they are original compositions.

Intrigued, I decided to try something a bit more wacky and far more challenging – or so I assumed, anyway.

“Write a Shakespearean sonnet about a cat,” I commanded ChatGPT.

And it did. Three times. Each sonnet took about 10 seconds to materialize, and each seemed better than the one before. They had 14 lines, followed the proper rhyme scheme, and ended in a couplet. Just so. And they sounded… well, maybe not perfectly Shakespearean, but at least Elizabethan. Here’s an example stanza:

In twilight’s hush, there stirs a feline grace,

A creature draped in shadow’s soft caress,

Its eyes, twin orbs, enchanting depths embrace,

With nimble paws, it doth my heart possess.

Freaky, right? To my eye, the sonnets lacked the Bard’s signature depth – his wit and word play – but I studied Shakespeare in college and grad school. To the average reader, I’m pretty sure they’d pass muster.

That’s the thing about all this fakery that’s multiplying around us – from the Photoshopped Martha Stewart cover to the frozen faces of women – young and old – to the robot-written essays and sonnets of ChatGPT. It might look good, but it’s not good. Because it’s not real.

That’s how I feel now, anyway. As the line between real and fake continues to blur, so might my opinion. Perhaps there will come a time when I can see absolutely no difference between real and fake and will simply cease to care. That thought makes me deeply sad, but I can’t quite explain why. Perhaps I should ask ChatGPT to generate an essay on the topic.

Though I’m not sure AI is capable of grappling with such nuance. Not yet, anyway. After it churned out the three cat sonnets, I asked ChatGPT to answer the question: “Is Donald Trump an honest man?”

ChatGPT replied, “As an AI language model, I don’t hold personal opinions or biases.”

Whew. That’s a relief. While poets should probably start looking around for a new gig, I guess my job as an opinion columnist is safe.

For now.