Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A Death. A Continuity.

Way back in October, 2019, when the world was somewhat cooler and it actually snowed in the winter, I wrote a post about a book I had just finished reading, "The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters," by Tom Nichols. Right now, it costs just eight dollars and twenty-three cents on Amazon's Kindle. Which kind of proves the campaign against knowledge that Nichols mentions is actually working.

I loved Nichols' book when I read it 42 months ago. With the onslaught of acclaim for our latest rendition of people-annihilating technology, AI or Chat GPT or Whatever, I thought I'd revisit and see WTFIGO (what the fuck is going on.)

But before I go into today's exegesis, let me leap somewhere I don't think a computer program would or could. I'm referring to this item in the January 30, 2023 online edition of "The Wall Street Journal."

Here's the bit that got my head going: "The details of such ruins are often difficult to discern from ground level through dense jungle vegetation, Dr. Hansen said. 'I’ve walked within 5 feet of a 20-story building and didn’t know it was there because the vegetation made it so impossible to detect,' he said. 

"That is where lidar comes in. The technology works like radar except that laser beams rather than radio waves are used to locate and map objects....

“'You can map in minutes what we once mapped in years'” said Carlos Morales-Aguilar, a geography researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the research.

The new lidar data revealed how much previous excavations and explorations had missed, Dr. Hansen said. 'We never would have found all the causeways and numerous massive platforms without it,' he said."

The above example, I think, is important. It changes things around a bit. Tech doesn't replace humans--and human expertise. Tech makes us better humans.

Way back when I was on IBM, the preferred term among people I knew was that AI should stand for Augmented Intelligence, not Artificial Intelligence. And certainly, the technology being used to uncover Mayan civilizations in Guatemala is deepening human perception. It's augmenting--making us greater than our corpuscles can, if left to their own devices.

Surely, however, thousands of marketers will replace shitty human-derived copy with faster, cheaper, never-needs-a-break computer-derived copy. Just as thousands of marketers replaced shitty human call-centers with faster, cheaper, never-needs-a-break computer-derived call centers.

Here's the thing.

Is any of this any good--human or machine-derived? Most copy I read, as an ex-boss of mine used to say, is flat as a plate of piss. It sticks to you like dogshit sticks to a lug-soled boot. I'd imagine that much of the copy that's foisted upon us does more to depress a brand's value than elevate it. Just because you can annoy me doesn't mean you should.

I feel the same way about phone centers and bots that are supposed to help customers.

Yet, they're cheap. Forget about whether or not they suck. They're cheap.

No question we have the power to bombard every human being on earth with a trillion messages a day. I wonder if we have the restraint not to. Will AI--in whatever form--improve our judgment. Or will it make crap more ubiquitous?

My questions about AI, whether it's augmented intelligence or artificial intelligence are these: 

  • Can AI surprise me?
  • Can AI make me laugh?
  • Can AI understand me and show me empathy--
    cheer me when I'm sad, soothe me when I'm in need?
  • Can AI put two things together that don't belong together
    and therefore create an unexpected effect? A tear? A guffaw?
  • Can AI comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
    Can AI be thoughtful and kind? Respectful and considerate?
  • Can AI be human or just replace humans?
  • Can AI be nonsensical and weird?
My point at the end of all this is simple. The big schmears that run the giant companies that run our lives will always choose cheaper over better. No matter that cheaper can lead to collapsed dams, cancerous pollution in our rivers and crashed airplanes. The people who ultimately rule our days and nights and lives always choose cheap over better and probably always will. 

I've read a lot about Kings, Shahs, Emporers, Satraps, Presidents and Corporate Titans. They're almost always in the "I'll choose what's good for me" business rather than "the be good to customers/citizens" business. 

I don't know why anyone anywhere thinks this latest innovation, really talented AI, will be any different to anything that's gone before.

Before we embrace anything new, we have to think. Think about the law of unintended consequences. It's this simple: I love ice cream. But there's a consequence. It makes me sick. So, I can't eat it.

I'm not sure we think about future effects in the present. Especially when the rolling acclaim for something new and boffo fills the world with a loud echoing chorus. Who can say "this sucks," when all the mavens say "this is great."

I'd just take it easy with all the effusion.

And look before you leap.

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