The threat of AI


The newest wild tech talk is about artificial intelligence, and ChatGBT in particular. I cannot pretend to really understand the science, but there are some fundamental issues about the rate of take-up of the services of machines pretending to be human that are distinctly alarming, even at a superficial level.

For people over a certain age, there may be a reluctance to even start trying to get to grips with this new wave of tech development, but that is a luxury for a younger generation charged with managing societies in which these creations of the unstoppably inventive human brain proliferate.

Fortunately, some forms of integration of new technology happens without one noticing too much. For example, I do not know how to open the bonnet of my five-year-old car, because most of the operations are computerised, and if something goes wrong (and it never has), a light and a message pop up to tell me exactly what to do when. A service every six months guarantees trouble-free car ownership, something unimaginable when I started driving.

Some newer technologies have more or less ousted older ones, such as the conventional telephone. In poorer countries with exaggerated inequality, such as India and in most of Africa, people went from no means of personal, domestic communications to mobile phones, thereby eliminating a whole previous stage of development.

It also means that expensive imported desktop computers and laptops are not strictly necessary to become part of 21st-century living.

Not everyone, however, is aware of the ethics of modern tech usage. I have railed against being sent an urgent message by social media, such as news of an accident which needs immediate action, when the use of a phone would be more appropriate.

But I have been informed that it is impolite these days to call. One must first send a message to enquire if it is convenient to be called by phone.

In truth, incoming calls can be a pain, and it may be useful to be able to plan them, but the result is that we must now all have our mobile phones about our person or within sight to remain in contact, especially when the phone bell is nearly always muted, except by more mature users who appreciate the main benefit of a telephone call.

Alexa and Siri, which use voice recognition, also have their attractions, and many users have easily come to rely on them. They certainly enjoy their novelty without realising that they represent a new form of dehumanised house help and secretarial service, with the benefit that, since no money changes hands, the relationship could never be deemed exploitative.

It certainly removes the possible stress of managing a member of staff, which brings me to the important matter of employment.

According to McKinsey, the international management consultants, AI will have displaced about 15 per cent of the world’s workers, which is 400 million people, between 2016 and 2030, and if the pace of take-up quickens, then the numbers could double.

It begs the question, why must we do that?

The answer might be that new sorts of jobs will replace them and that there is no option. We need new tools for the new worlds. Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, predicted that man’s future on planet Earth is doomed. The work on space science and recent discoveries of water granules on the moon’s surface and other possible human-life-support needs being perhaps available on other planets indicate that we are in the embryonic stage of intergalactic life that few of us can imagine.

I never enjoyed speculative fiction, because the scenarios are too frightening in their possibility. It is even more unnerving to see that the fertile imaginations of writers can be predictive, which brings me to the subject of ChatGPT, the AI tool that could easily hurry us into another unexpected dilemma of managing our education systems and intellectual thought.

Science News magazine reports that the free tool can, from just a simple prompt, write first-class essays for students and also stories that are extremely difficult to detect as being of AI origin.

The risk of churning out students who rely on such wonderful aids, unable to work through thought processes, is disturbing. Like all new inventions, ChatGPT is intended to have positive effects, but, given that we are human beings, we always manage to find ways to implement them for negative reasons too.

US universities and high schools are already working out ways of using ChatGBT that keep students writing for themselves, since writing is evidence of thinking and learning.

Yet the possibilities are endless. Maybe I will ask ChatGPT (Microsoft) or Bard (Google) or Anthropic or Ernie Bot to generate my weekly column.

The challenge would be if something totally alien to my way of thinking emerged. Yet if they all responded to the same prompt, at least one might be close enough to just merit editing.

But then why would Newsday need me to do that when the editors could do it themselves? It is a brave new world we face, indeed!


"The threat of AI"

More in this section