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.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


If yesterday's post -- about creating pseudo-interactive online avatars for dead people -- didn't make you question where our use of artificial intelligence is heading, today we have a study out of Purdue University that found an application of ChatGPT to solving programming and coding problems resulted in answers that half the time contained incorrect information -- and 39% of the recipients of these answers didn't recognize the answers as incorrect.

The problem of an AI system basically just making shit up is called a "hallucination," and it's proven to be extremely difficult to eradicate.  This is at least partly because the answers are still generated using real data, so they can sound plausible; it's the software version of a student who only paid attention half the time and then has to take a test, and answers the questions by taking whatever vocabulary words he happens to remember and gluing them together with bullshit.  Google's Bard chatbot, for example, claimed that the James Webb Space Telescope had captured the first photograph of a planet outside the Solar System (a believable lie, but it didn't).  Meta's AI Galactica was asked to draft a paper on the software for creating avatars, and cited a fictitious paper by a real author who works in the field.  Data scientist Teresa Kubacka was testing ChatGPT and decided to throw in a reference to a fictional device -- the "cycloidal inverted electromagnon" -- just to see what the AI would do with it, and it came up with a description of the thing so detailed (with dozens of citations) that Kubacka found herself compelled to check and see if she'd by accident used the name of something obscure but real.

It gets worse than that.  A study of an AI-powered mushroom-identification software found it only got the answer right fifty percent of the time -- and, frighteningly, provided cooking instructions when presented with a photograph of a deadly Amanita mushroom.  Fall for that little "hallucination" and three days later at your autopsy they'll have to pour your liver out of your abdomen.  Maybe the AI was trained on Terry Pratchett's line that "All mushrooms are edible.  Some are only edible once."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Marketcomlabo, Image-chatgpt, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Apparently, in inventing AI, we've accidentally imbued it with the very human capacity for lying.

I have to admit that when the first AI became widely available, it was very tempting to play with it -- especially the photo modification software of the "see what you'd look like as a Tolkien Elf" type.  Better sense prevailed, so alas, I'll never find out how handsome Gordofindel is.  (A pity, because human Gordon could definitely use an upgrade.)  Here, of course, the problem isn't veracity; the problem is that the model is trained using art work and photography that is (to put not too fine a point on it) stolen.  There have been AI-generated works of "art" that contained the still-legible signature of the artist whose pieces were used to train the software -- and of course, neither that artist nor the millions of others whose images were "scrubbed" from the internet by the software received a penny's worth of compensation for their time, effort, and skill.

It doesn't end there.  Recently actress Scarlett Johansson announced that she actually had to sue Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, to get him to discontinue the use of a synthesized version of her voice that was so accurate it fooled her family and friends.  Here's her statement:

Fortunately for Ms. Johansson, she's got the resources to sue Altman, but most creatives simply don't.  If we even find out that our work has been lifted, we really don't have any recourse to fight the AI techbros' claims that it's "fair use." 

The problem is, the system is set up so that it's already damn near impossible for writers, artists, and musicians to make a living.  I've got over twenty books in print, through two different publishers and a handful that are self-published, and I have never made more than five hundred dollars a year.  My wife, Carol Bloomgarden, is an astonishingly talented visual artist who shows all over the northeastern United States, and in any given show it's a good day when she sells enough to pay for her booth fees, lodging, travel expenses, and food.

So throw a bunch of AI-insta-generated pretty-looking crap into the mix, and what happens -- especially when the "artist" can sell it for one-tenth of the price and still turn a profit? 

I'll end with a plea I've made before; until lawmakers can put the brakes on AI to protect safety, security, and intellectual property rights, we all need to stop using it.  Period.  This is not out of any fundamental anti-tech Luddite-ism; it's simply from the absolute certainty that the techbros are not going to police themselves, not when there's a profit to be made, and the only leverage we have is our own use of the technology.  So stop posting and sharing AI-generated photographs.  I don't care how "beautiful" or "precious" they are.  (And if you don't know the source of an image with enough certainty to cite an actual artist or photographer's name or Creative Commons handle, don't share it.  It's that simple.)

As a friend of mine put it, "As usual, it's not the technology that's the problem, it's the users."  Which is true enough; there are a myriad potentially wonderful uses for AI, especially once they figure out how to debug it.  But at the moment, it's being promoted by people who have zero regard for the rights of human creatives, and are willing to steal their writing, art, music, and even their voices without batting an eyelash.  They are shrugging their shoulders at their systems "hallucinating" incorrect information, including information that could potentially harm or kill you.

So just... stop.  Ultimately, we are in control here, but only if we choose to exert the power we have.

Otherwise, the tech companies will continue to stomp on the accelerator, authenticity, fairness, and truth be damned.


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