Are they coming for my job?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about A.I. and machine learning. Like many people, I’ve bought into all the hype about these technologies. I’ve also bought into the uncertainty and fear surrounding these ideas. I’ll be honest; anything robot-adjacent scares the crap out of me. Many years ago, I watched the episode “Succession” from one of my favorite T.V. shows of all time, 30 Rock. In that episode, douchebag writer Frank explains the “uncanny valley,” a theory by robotics professor Masahiro Mori about our reaction to lifelike robots. In an article, he hypothesized that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance. Once I heard this theory, I thought, “this is exactly why I’m so creeped out by robots.”
But that’s not the only reason I’m scared of artificial intelligence. Like many people my age, I grew up on movies like Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a film that failed to make me gain empathy for child robots (even one’s as adorable as Haley Joel Osment). Of course, there was also “I, Robot,” a Will Smith movie where robots try to take over the world. And the classically creepy “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Humans love to demonize things we don’t understand, and new technologies tend to bring out our worst fears.
Recently, we’ve seen a lot of media and marketing about A.I. writing tools like Rytr, Jasper, and Quilbot. I can’t get on Instagram without seeing an ad for one of these tools. Much of the marketing is along the lines of “hate writing blogs and other content? We’ve got the answer.” As someone who relies on writing blogs and other content to make money, I’ve been apprehensive about these technologies putting me out of business. One could argue that freelance writers aren’t paid well enough, and now you’re telling me that the robots are coming for my tiny piece of the pie?
Well… it’s a little more complicated than that.
A different take on A.I.
University of Washington Computational Linguistics Professor, Emily Bender has a different take on the idea that A.I. can master human language. Her article “On NYT Magazine on A.I.: Resist the Urge to be Impressed.” She says, “I end that talk by reminding the audience not to be too impressed and to remember:
- Just because that text seems coherent doesn’t mean the model behind it has understood anything or is trustworthy
- Just because that answer was correct doesn’t mean the next one will be
- When a computer seems to “speak our language,” we’re actually the ones doing all of the work
I believe one of her main points about A.I. is this, “humans are the ones creating these A.I. programs, and training them on things written by humans. Therefore, the output will sound like human language. But A.I. cannot create works of art like humans do.” A.I. and machine learning are buzzwords, and these programs have a lot of marketing money behind them. But it doesn’t mean that these programs really work. Computers do what we tell them to do. If you train your A.I. on episodes of the show “Seinfeld,” it will sound like Seinfeld. But it doesn’t make these robots into real comedy writers like Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David.
As we all know, marketing is a powerful tool. And many tech start-ups have the capital to make their products sound like they are the answer to all your problems. As Bender says, “Puff pieces that fawn over what Silicon Valley tech bros have done, with amassed capital and computing power, are not helping us get any closer to solutions to problems created by the deployment of so-called “A.I.” On the contrary, they make it harder by refocusing attention on strawman problems.” Of course, the creators of these technologies want you to believe that they are better and more capable than they are; that’s how they make money.
Think of it this way: Ford Mustangs don’t make you any sexier (well, they might), and buying everyone a Coke won’t make the world a better place. These are marketing campaigns to get you to buy these products. Technologies change the world, but only in the ways, humans want them to.
Further listening: Factually with Adam Conover “The Real Problem with A.I. with Emily Bender.”