Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Stolen voices

AI scares the hell out of me.

Not, perhaps, for the reason you might be thinking.  Lately there have been scores of articles warning about the development of broad-ability generative AI, and how we're in for it as a species if that happens -- that AI will decide we're superfluous, or even hazardous for its own survival, and it'll proceed to either enslave us (The Matrix-style) or else do away with us entirely.

For a variety of reasons, I think that's unlikely.  First, I think conscious, self-aware AI is a long way away (although it must be mentioned that I'm kind of lousy at predictions; I distinctly recall telling my AP Biology class that "adult tissue cloning is at least ten years in the future" the week before the Dolly the sheep research was released).  For another, you have to wonder how, practically, AI would accomplish killing us all.  Maybe a malevolent AI could infiltrate our computer systems and screw things up royally, but wiping us out as a species is very hard to imagine.


I'm seriously worried about AI's escalating impact on creative people.  As a fiction writer, I follow a lot of authors on Twitter, and in the past week there's been alarm over a new application of AI tools (such as Sudowrite and Chat GPT) that will "write a novel" given only a handful of prompts.  The overall reaction to this has been "this is not creativity!", which I agree with, but what's to stop publishers from cutting costs -- skipping the middle-man, so to speak -- and simply AI-generating novels to sell?  No need to deal with (or pay) pesky authors.  Just put in, "write a space epic about an orphan, a smuggler, and a princess who get caught up in a battle to stop an evil empire," and presto!  You have the next Star Wars in a matter of minutes.

If you think this isn't already happening, you're fooling yourself.  Every year, the group Queer Science Fiction hosts a three-hundred-word flash fiction contest, and publishes an anthology of the best entries.  (Brief brag; I've gotten into the anthology two years running, and last year my submission, "Refraction," won the Director's Pick Award.  I should hear soon if I got the hat trick and made it into this year's anthology.)  J. Scott Coatsworth (a wonderful author in his own right), who manages the contest, said that for the first time this year he had to run submissions through an algorithm to detect AI-generated writing -- and caught (and disqualified) ten entires.

If people are taking these kinds of shortcuts to avoid writing a three-hundred-word story, how much more incentive is there to use it to avoid the hard work and time required to write a ninety-thousand-word novel?  And how much longer will it be before AI becomes good enough to slip past the detection algorithms?

And it's not just writing.  You've no doubt heard of the issue with AI art, but do you know about the impact on music?  Musician Rick Beato did a piece on YouTube about AI voice synthesis that is fascinating and terrifying.  It includes a clip of a "new Paul McCartney/John Lennon duet" -- completely AI-created, of course -- that is absolutely convincing.  He frames the question as, "who owns your voice?"  It's a more complex issue than it appears at first.  Parodists and mimics imitate famous voices all the time, and as long as they're not claiming to actually be the person they're imitating, it's all perfectly legal.  So what happens if a music producer decides to generate an AI Taylor Swift song?  No need to pay the real Taylor Swift; no expensive recording studio time needed.  As long as it's labeled "AI Taylor Swift," it seems like it should be legal.

Horrifyingly unethical, yes.  But legal.

And because all of this boils down to money, you know it's going to happen.  "Write a novel in the style of Stephen King."  "Create a new song by Linkin Park."  "Generate a painting that looks like Salvador Dalí."  What happens to the actual artists, musicians, and writers?  Once your voice is stolen and synthesized, what need is there for your real voice any more?

Of course, I think that creatives are absolutely critical; our voices are unique and irreplaceable.  The problem is, if an AI can get close enough to the real thing, you can bet consumers are going to go for it, not only because AI-generated content will be a great deal cheaper, but also for the sheer novelty.  ("Listen to this!  Can you believe this isn't actually Beyoncé?")  As an author, I can vouch for the fact that it's already hard enough to get your work out to the public, have it seen and read and reviewed.

What will we do when the market is flooded with cheap, mediocre-but-adequate AI-generated content?

I'm no legal expert, and I don't have any ready solutions for how this could be fairly managed.  There are positive uses for AI, so "ban it all" isn't the answer.  And in any case, the genie is out of the bottle; any efforts to stop AI development at this point are doomed to failure.

But we have to figure out how to protect the voices of creatives.  Because without our voices, we've lost the one thing that truly makes us human.


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