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Star Trek or Mad Max?
September 11, 2023
Will the world end up with a “Star Trek” existence, space travel and other benefits, or with a “Mad Max” dystopian world? Jaron Lanier is the one of the smartest technology gurus that nobody’s ever heard of and his latest interview provides a welcome relief to predictions that AI will soon destroy humanity. In March, 1,000 tech experts responded to the emergence of ChatGPT by calling for a moratorium on all AI development because of its existential threat. But Lanier, a computer scientist and the godfather of virtual reality, says ChatGPT is not AI and the risk of extinction is overstated. However, he’s been a critic for years of the disruption to jobs and society caused by the Internet and its design. In 2013, he accurately warned that its flawed architecture would allow companies to highjack content for free, then sell ads around it for enormous profits. That happened, but he doesn’t believe that catastrophe is around the corner. “Don’t fall for the hype, there is no AI. ChatGPT is not an electronic brain in the sky.”
ChatGPT is not AI, but is “generative artificial intelligence”. It does not think or feel or invent content and only formulates existing data. However, it will accelerate the downside that Lanier wrote about in his 2013 book, “Who Owns the Future?”. He pointed out that Big Tech would take over because the Internet’s architecture allowed any entity to expropriate content without payment, despite copyrights, produced by the “creative” middle class (photographers, translators, journalists, cartoonists, artists). He argued in favor of an alternative architecture that can identify content providers and reward them for their content contributions with micro-payments. It never happened and, as a result, content occupations have been hollowed out over the years and technology giants dominate.
Artificial Intelligence is defined as the “development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, ideation, invention, initiative, and translation between languages”. Instead, Chat GPT is just a “mashup of other things people have written or produced. The same with code”, said Lanier. But it causes harm by extending the piracy of content by being able to “scrape” all content from data bases to repurpose it in response to questions from users. It spits out concise text summaries or collated images stolen from the “creative” middle class without payment, copyrighted or not. Worse, its ability for formulate content also will highjack the jobs of content handlers or those who make a living by doing research, analysis, translations, coding, synthesizing, and otherwise repurposing content. More occupations will be disrupted.
Tech financier Marc Andreessen says the only concern about AI is that it may end up in the hands of "bad people" who may do "bad things" with the technology, such as using it to "build better defense tools." He believes the way to avert that is to make future AI systems safer and less vulnerable to hacking. He also believes benefits will far outweigh dangers: “I am here to bring the good news: AI will not destroy the world, and in fact may save it. It is a computer program like any other – it runs, takes input, processes, and generates output. AI’s output is useful across a wide range of fields, ranging from coding to medicine to law to the creative arts. It is owned by people and controlled by people. A shorter description of what AI isn’t: Killer software and robots that will spring to life and decide to murder the human race or otherwise ruin everything, like you see in the movies.”
ChatGPT creator Sam Altman believes that a government agency should be formed to oversee AI safety. Unfortunately, governments have failed to regulate tech for years. Silicon Valley is still not liable for damages it causes as a result of libel, fraud, terrorism, or stalking. It has also not been held to account for spying on customers, reselling their private information, and flouting copyright protection. This is finally being challenged in the courts by Hollywood, illustrators, photographers and others who want to prevent ChatGPT from re-using scripts, words, plots, and images without paying royalties.
Legislation is needed. Instead, President Joe Biden summoned tech leaders to the White House to warn them that they have a “moral” duty to ensure artificial intelligence does not harm society. But this is a typical American approach — relying on the private sector to police itself -- which has not done anything to prevent the creation of America’s reckless and abusive social media platforms. By contrast, the European Parliament has tabled regulations to bridle AI as well as “generative AIs” like ChatGPT. Eventually, as job losses skyrocket, political action will be taken.
Lanier is unique because he’s an artist as well as a scientist. Born in New York in 1960 to parents who had fled Europe, he attended university at the age of 13 while also studying art and music. By 23, he was in Silicon Valley working for Atari Labs and played a key role in commercializing virtual reality technologies. His books have been ground breaking works.
In 2011, he wrote “You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto” which forecasted how digital design would adversely change culture and commerce. His 2017 “Dawn of the New Everything”: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality explained how powerful virtual reality technology is and will become (“TV and video games draw people into a zombielike trance”) as well as its benefits. It’s used to treat war veterans overcoming PTSD; by doctors to perform intricate surgeries, and as a mechanism to prototype almost every vehicle fabricated in the last two decades.
In 2018, “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” demonstrated why social media platforms are “dangerous”. He believes they have warped society by bringing out the worst in us, polarized politics, perpetuated fraud, disconnected us from one another, bombarded us with advertising relentlessly, and put us under constant surveillance. He described Big Tech’s business model as “espionage and propaganda” — not surprising since Facebook and Google were backed originally by Russian oligarchs who imposed a Soviet social media model. The result is that society has become cruder, less empathetic, and more tribal, he argued.
Yann LeCun, another genius and “AI godfather”, agrees with Lanier that dangers are exaggerated. He is Meta's chief AI scientist and said fears about AI posing a threat to humanity are "preposterously ridiculous. Will AI take over the world? No, this is a projection of human nature on machines," LeCun said at a press event in Paris in June.
Facts are that, like guns, technology is not in itself the problem: Human beings are. Today’s only existential threat is not AI or Big Tech, but is the “Mad Max” in Russia, Vladimir Putin and his nuclear arsenal.