An essay ‘about’ AI, written ‘by’ AI. Maybe even ‘for’ AI? As my kids say, “Are we there yet?” It feels less like we’re crossing the Rubicon, more like crossing the space-time manifold. Our “Hal moment.” [Editor’s note: Hal, the most infamous engineering icon in literary/cinematic history, who attempts to take over the space ship from the humans aboard.] Computer both provider and consumer, what could go wrong?
I’m not writing this as one who knows much about AI, but as one who, like most of us, knows so little. Suddenly (for those of us who weren’t paying much attention), it’s everywhere. Like the music of Ravel’s Bolero swelling, growing stronger and more dominant by the moment, washing over us.
Headlines like this recent gem: “Forty-two percent of CEOs say AI could destroy humanity in five to ten years.” That makes melting ice look like an inconvenience. Existential threat of the day, pick your flavor. It’s like asking the condemned, “At what time tomorrow would you like to be shot? We have slots open in the morning, afternoon, or evening. Take your pick.” It’s not hard, even for the technically illiterate like me, to imagine untold benefits of AI (and, coming soon to a world near you, AGI – Artificial General Intelligence – intellectually equal or superior to humans). Human creativity, productivity, efficiency enhanced beyond our wildest dreams. Chaplin’s Modern Times on steroids.
After clawing our way through an Industrial Revolution and late 19th century advances like steam to oil, harnessed electricity, telephone, radio; a 20th century so chockablock with innovations from antibiotics to human flight to Hiroshima to the internet; our own 21st century off with a boom as Steve Jobs showed how easily we could slip a computer into our pockets, social media reducing six degrees of separation to just one, nanotech rescaling our world (2 nanometer transistors narrower than a strand of human DNA, and shrinking still). To quote Steve Jobs’ last words: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!”
And now, this. Lonely? Cancer? Plastic in the oceans? AI to the rescue! But (it’s a big BUT) from the Be Careful What You Wish For department, as AI morphs from helping with our jobs to replacing them, a warning from Goldman Sachs: “Generative artificial intelligence technologies have the potential to transform the labor market, exposing the majority of the nation’s jobs to automation. The technology can create new content such as text, images, audio, video, and code.”
Even assuming a guaranteed income, assured by a system that will produce without (much) human labor, ask yourself what you would do if you no longer had to work. Myself, I’d go nuts. For the luckiest among us, work is more than earning an income. It connects to our identity, satisfaction, sense of purpose.
Also, as computers unravel secrets at a pace impossible to imagine, do we really want to strip so much mystery from this world? Beyond grim military implications, further hints of the sinister. Big Brother, the great Behemoth, catching our images by omnipresent cameras (someday maybe, our smell in the wind?) knowing who, what, when, and where we are – if not why?
Job 40:15–18. “Behold Behemoth, which I made as I made you … behold his strength in his loins and his power in the muscles of his belly … His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron.” The machine! Control or controlled, ‘that’ is the question.
Using ChatGPT, I had this recent conversation with William Shakespeare:
“So, Will, can you tell me please, what kind of car did you drive in Stratford?” (Even though it was a bot, I felt an ingrained need to be polite.)
WS: “Ah, my friend, I drove only the best. A BMW.”
Me: “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Will, but there were no cars in 17th century Stratford. That was a trick question.”
WS: “Of course, my friend, you are correct. And you do not hurt my feelings. You have taught me something very valuable. Thank you.”
The next time someone asks that question, he will know how to answer. This machine learns very quickly.
One argument is that if ‘we’ don’t build it, ‘they’ will. So, it feels like we are lab rats in an inevitable experiment. Finger in the dike the best we can now do, before the flood.
I’m writing this essay from a stone hut in an olive grove above the Spanish Catalan fishing village of Cadaqués. No electricity here, candles at night, a small fire to heat my water for coffee in the morning, books for company. Sounds of insects, birds, wild pigs foraging close by. Color and texture of the sea below changing with the sky. I feel like the character John in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 classic dystopian novel, Brave New World. Recoiling at the control and dehumanization of mechanized society, branded a savage, he withdraws to a state of nature lest he become a machine himself.
Ironically, one of the great on-screen death scenes is not of a human character, but of the HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: Space Odyssey. As that avatar of all AI attempts to seize control from humans, one astronaut resorts to disassembling the computer’s hard drive. The machine reverts to its own infancy – like a human, in the end recalling our beginnings. Singing the childhood song Daisy Bell (as the IBM 704 had done in 1961, the first computer-synthesized speech), the words grow slower, groggier as he fades toward oblivion. A film moment as we look not ‘at’ the one dying, but ‘through’ his own perspective.
I’ve stopped responding on Facebook to a group I once loved, one that shares photos of abandoned castles. I suspect many of those photos are generated by AI. I will end this essay with a question. Can you be absolutely certain this was written by a human, or have we crossed that line already?
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