Thursday, December 22, 2022

Techtatorship and the Coming Botmageddon

What's about to happen to global society with the rise of Artificial Intelligence is truly terrifying to consider.

Massive technological developments are extremely disruptive to societies.  In capitalist economies, technological developments are especially disruptive, because those in control of new technologies tend to be the capitalist class, who use the new technology to increase their profits, leaving all those adversely impacted by the new reality to fend for themselves. 

Technological developments that could potentially have made life easier and the workweek shorter for so many people, such as the industrial revolution and the many waves of industrial automation that followed, generated massive profits for the capitalists, and helped create a significant class of middle managers, bureaucrats, and all those providing for their middle class consumption patterns.  But for the majority, farming parcels of land, working in the factories, or losing that work to automation, it was an entirely different story of misery and early death.  Only the establishment of a largescale labor movement over the course of a century of struggle began to significantly change this picture (along with the rise of cooperatives and more authentic versions of democracy in some countries) and allow for members of the working class to live decent lives.

The computer age has been similarly disruptive to societies around the world, with new waves of people losing their jobs to new forms of automation.  Ask anyone who used to make a living as a switchboard operator, typist, or film processor.  The rise of the internet has compounded this phenomenon exponentially.  Ask anyone who used to work as a travel agent, journalist, store clerk, or recording artist.

As Big Tech gathers ever more money and political influence, monopolizing more and more of our time and attention, pushing out or buying up the competition, the power of the personalized, secret algorithm to keep us all glued to YouTube or having arguments on Facebook or shopping on Amazon has become ever more clear.  

I have written a lot about the influence of these secret algorithms, both because they have such an outsized impact on all of our lives, and because most people seem to be completely clueless about how much impact they're having, or even that they exist at all.  Meanwhile, the secret algorithms keep on determining to such a huge degree what we see or don't see, whether pertaining to news stories, what our friends and associates are up to, or what music we hear.

What I suspect is coming over the next decade or so will be so much more impactful on us all that the changes wrought by the coming of the internet, the microchip, or the assembly line will truly pale in comparison.  I'm talking about Artificial Intelligence.

For those who don't really understand to what degree their lives are being intensively manipulated by secret, personalized algorithms already right now, the next decade will be particularly shocking and disorienting.  But I'm sure it will be shocking and disorienting for all of us, regardless.  (Alongside other shocking and disorienting developments such as continued climate change, crop failures, fires, floods,  famines, wars, mass migrations, etc.)

I'm far from the first to make this observation about the impending new reality that AI will give rise to, nor am I the first person to be terrified by the prospect of our AI-dominated future.  Much more intelligent people than me have been saying these things for decades.  But now, along with a lot of other people who have been online over the past couple weeks with a bit of time to spare, I get it, too.

When the guy lost his job at Google last fall for going public with his belief that the secret AI chatbot he was having extensive conversations with was actually sentient, he was widely ridiculed.  The ridicule came overwhelmingly from people who, like me, had never even come close to having a conversation with a chatbot that seemed remotely like a human conversationalist.  That changed when Open AI's new chatbot came online at the end of November.

I could tell you about some of the conversations I've been having with this chatbot, or about all of the analysis of ideas and history it has engaged in at my prompting, or about the many poems, songs, stories, and opinion columns I have had the chatbot write.  What I'd really recommend, though, is while this chatbot is still online for people to use for free, check it out -- spend a couple hours giving instructions and asking questions at and find out for yourself what the fuss is all about.

The Turing Test has been exceeded.  It is fully capable of speaking in either proper or colloquial English, or whatever other kind of English you fancy (Shakespearean, modern teenager, whatever).  The technology is already fully in place for this human-like intellect to be matched up with a voice and a face, seamlessly, in video form at least.  It could be anybody, pretty much.

Talking with this bot is a lot like talking with Commander Data on the Star Trek set.  It's like talking with someone with a vast breadth of knowledge about everything, but who hasn't had much experience in the real world.  Like an impossibly-knowledgeable and impossibly-fast teenager of some kind.  I have no doubt that this will change, and soon enough it will be more like talking to an impossibly-knowledgeable and impossibly-fast young adult.

Even with this chatbot out there and nothing else, it's easy to imagine the loss of jobs in so many fields, including journalists, writers of all kinds, coders, and soon enough musicians, songwriters, and artists of all kinds.  And under our capitalist system, these out-of-work programmers and writers will just be more unemployed people -- not more people enjoying the good things in life that could potentially come along with AI taking over most formerly white-collar occupations.

But the coming seismic changes in all white-collar workplaces around the world is only the tip of the iceberg.  It's not even what I find terrifying.

The social media tech giants are already dominating our lives -- our communications, our ability to make sense of the world around us -- with secret algorithms.  What is to possibly stop them from introducing AI chatbots into the mix?  

The point of the secret algorithms, as I mentioned, is to keep us glued to YouTube, arguing on Facebook, and shopping on Amazon, etc.  If AI chatbots can assist in keeping us doing those things -- and they most certainly could, it's very easy to imagine -- then they will be introduced on those platforms.  And like the secret algorithms, the chatbots will be secret, too.  And who will be told which of the online entities engaging with you are chatbots, and which are humans?  

And when intelligence agencies and big-business hacking networks and other nefarious actors get ahold of this technology, what then?

They can tell their chatbot something like this:  create five hundred social media accounts, with each account simulating a real person who posts a lot about whatever divisive thing you want -- why Jews are greedy, Blacks are prone to criminality, trans people are all pedophiles, Russians all want to take over the world.  Have each of these five hundred fake accounts publish an essay every so often about why David Rovics is an antisemite, or why labor unions are bad for the economy, or how the tech billionaires will save us all.  And these don't need to be essays, these can be livestreamed videos of someone talking who could be anyone they are told to be, or choose to be.

Let's put aside the popular sci fi premise of the AI taking over the world and running things for the benefit of computers instead of mammalian life forms like us.  Long before anything like that happens, we are staring in the face a near future that is fraught with the possibility that sometime very soon, we will have no way of knowing for sure whether we're engaging with chatbots or humans.  We'll have no idea if there really are thousands of people who are actively promoting some bizarre conspiracy theory, or if they are all bots given the same instructions by one person somewhere in the US or Israel or Russia or North Korea.

Under the right (wrong) circumstances, with no regulations successfully implemented, with nefarious actors (such as Big Tech corporations, intelligence agencies, etc.) using such powerful technology -- which we may as well consider an inevitability, since it is one -- we will soon have absolutely no sure way of knowing who is real and who isn't, what popular opinion is and what it isn't.  This technology will be able to make the most sophisticated propaganda machines history has ever produced look like a toddler playing with magnetic letters on a refrigerator door in comparison.  And to the extent we're not already there, we're right around the corner from this reality.

For better or, mostly, for worse, it will soon be the case that nothing we see on a screen can be trusted as real.  Just about everything we see online will be driven by secret, personalized algorithms along with every possible conception of the term Deep Fake.  The only people we'll know are authentic will be those we can touch, in three dimensions, with no screen or microchip in the room.

But once we fully arrive at this new reality, how many of us will realize we're there?  And what might we do about it?  Our choices, I believe, will be along the lines of either we join the Borg Collective, or we collectively unplug.  

"Unplug" is an easy word to type, but what that might possibly even look like, or how it might be done, I have no idea.  That our alternative to unplugging is a future not unlike the Borg Collective, run by nefarious actors in control of the most sophisticated AI, I have little doubt.  

Most technologies, from the simplest ones to the most complex, can be used for good or bad purposes.  And given historical precedent -- including very recent historical precedent, up to and including the present -- under capitalism, we can expect the worst.

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