AI influencers are worried about AI’s influence

What do you get when you put two of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people on artificial intelligence together in the same lecture hall? If the two influencers happen to be science-fiction writer Ted Chiang and Emily Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington, you get a lot of skepticism about the future of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT.

“I don’t use it, and I won’t use it, and I don’t want to read what other people do using it,” Bender said Nov. 10 at a Town Hall Seattle forum presented by Clarion West

Chiang, who writes essays about AI and works intelligent machines into some of his fictional tales, said it’s becoming too easy to think that AI agents are thinking.

“I feel confident that they’re not thinking,” he said. “They’re not understanding anything, but we need another way to make sense of what they’re doing.”

What’s the harm? One of Chiang’s foremost fears is that the thinking, breathing humans who wield AI will use it as a means to control other humans. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, he compared our increasingly AI-driven economy to “a giant treadmill that we can’t get off” — and during Friday’s forum, Chiang worried that the seeming humanness of AI assistants could play a role in keeping us on the treadmill.

“If people start thinking that Alexa, or something like that, deserves any kind of respect, that works to Amazon’s advantage,” he said. “That’s something that Amazon would try and amplify. Any corporation, they’re going to try and make you think that a product is a person, because you are going to interact with a person in a certain way, and they benefit from that. So, this is a vulnerability in human psychology which corporations are really trying to exploit.”

AI tools including ChatGPT and DALL-E typically produce text or imagery by breaking down huge databases of existing works, and putting the elements together into products that look as if they were created by humans. The artificial genuineness is the biggest reason why Bender stays as far away from generative AI as she can.

“The papier-mâché language that comes out of these systems isn’t representing the experience of any entity, any person. And so I don’t think it can be creative writing,” she said. “I do think there’s a risk that it is going to be harder to make a living as a writer, as corporations try to say, ‘Well, we can get the copy…’ or similarly in art, ‘We can get the illustrations done much cheaper by taking the output of the system that was built with stolen art, visual or linguistic, and just repurposing that.’”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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