I haven’t posted in a while. In truth, there hasn’t been a lot that’s piqued my interest, and there are now elaborate global mechanisms and a squadron of eager commentators prepped and ready to address the issues I used to point at on this humble blog. In November, I could’ve written something predictable about the impact of ChatGPT, but I felt like I’d already played that tune back in 2020 when I attempted to summarize the intelligent thoughts of some philosophers.
ChatGPT. GPT-3. Potato. Potato.
The most interesting aspects of this kind of AI are yet to come, I don’t doubt that. But I am here to share a cautionary tale that syncs nicely with my ramblings over the last 5 (5??) years. It’s a story about reliance and truth. About the quest for knowledge, and how it almost always involves some level of fumbling around in the dark, but never more so than now.
The Uncanny Valley and the Meaning of Irony
There has been a lot of discussion about how human is too human when it comes to robots, bots, and other types of disembodied AI voices. An interest in this topic led to a frustrating Google search which led me to…you guessed it…ChatGPT.
What did we ever do without it? I’m starting to forget.
In the 15th century, Florentine statesman and all-round bigwig Lorenzo d’Medici (also modestly known as “Lorenzo The Magnificent”) made some pretty outspoken comments on the looks and deportment of the ideal Italian Renaissance beauty. Despite himself being described as “quite strikingly ugly“, Lorenzo was rather specific on what should be considered desirable, basing his high standards on celebrated noblewoman Simonetta Carraneo Vespucci. He writes:
“of an attractive and ideal height; the tone of her skin, white but not pale, fresh but not glowing; her demeanor was grave but not proud, sweet and pleasing, without frivolity or fear. Her eyes were lively and her gaze restrained, without trace of pride or meanness; her body was so well proportioned, that among other women she appeared dignified…in walking and dancing…and in all her movements she was elegant and attractive; her hands were the most beautiful that Nature could create. She dressed in those fashions which suited a noble and gentle lady…” (Commento del magnifico Lorenzo De’ Medici sopra alcuni de’ suoi sonetti)
Clearly beauty standards have evolved since Lorenzo’s time — and thankfully we’re probably less concerned about the restraint of our gaze and the beauty of our hands — but this notion of one common beauty ideal for women, dictated from without, unfortunately persists. And while Renaissance women agonized about achieving Simonetta’s bodily proportions and alabaster skin, their 21st century counterparts are turning to technological, and even surgical correction to emulate the new, algorithmically dictated standards for attention-worthy good looks.
A lot has been made of surveillance technology in recent years. Our once relatively benign CCTV setup has been given an AI-driven makeover. At the same time, lower production costs have facilitated a kind of “camera creep” evident in the boom in home security cameras, police bodycams and the trend for heightened employee surveillance.
And while surveillance cameras have become more pervasive and (arguably) more sophisticated in what they can identify — like faces or employee inattention or even a distinctive gait — bigger plans are afoot, and a recent investment boost for a small UK start-up called Mindtech Global might give us a clue as to how things will unfold.
Back in 2016, James Vlahos spent many months building the ambitious piece of software he ended up calling Dadbot. It was a heartfelt attempt to preserve the memories of his then dying father by assimilating them into a chatbot that he and his family could converse with in their grief, and in the years to come. A journalist by trade, James wrote the full story of this journey in WIRED, and if you don’t shed a tear while reading it you are *officially* dead inside.
James now helps others memorialize themselves and loved ones in a similar fashion with his business Hereafter, which is part of a wider tech-driven trend for conserving legacy (see Vita and Storyworth).
However, outside of these clear and obvious reasons for recording and encoding human lives, the WSJ reported last week that there is a parallel movement to use AI and digital technologies to somehow prolong the livesof the subjects in question: “…not only as static replicas for the benefit of their loved ones but as evolving digital entities that may steer companies or influence world events.“
Open the tech news on any given day and you’re almost guaranteed to find something about conversational AI or Natural Language Processing (NLP). This is the tech that powers chatbots, virtual assistants and the likes as they mimic human interaction. As this blog has noted, complex language models have come on leaps and bounds recently, and our future as users is becoming clear: we’ll be holding (reasonably) natural conversations with non-human bots on a regular basis, and for a variety of reasons.
The shadows on the cave wall — if not yet the fully realized Platonic form of conversational AI — can already be made out. Want banking tips? Ask Erica. Legal advice? There are bots like April. Want to engage your students? Juji thinks it can help.
In his online Masterclass on the art of writing, renowned journalist Malcolm Gladwell explains the shortcomings of Google when it comes to research and discovery. “The very thing that makes you love Google is why Google is not that useful“, he chirps. To Gladwell, a Google search is but a dead-end when a true researcher wants to be led “somewhere new and unexpected“.
In juxtaposition to Google’s search engine stands ye olde library, which Gladwell calls the “physical version of the internet” (sans some of the more sophisticated smut…). In a library — should it be required — guidance is on-hand in the form of a librarian, and unlike the internet there is a delightful order to things that the writer likens to a good conversation. Discovery can be as simple as finding what books surround the book that inspired you…and following the trail. Gladwell elucidates: “The book that’s right next to the book is the book that’s most like it, and then the book that’s right next to that one is a little bit different, and by the time you get ten books away you’re getting into a book that’s in the same general area but even more different.”
There is something altogether more natural and relational about uncovering the new — and the forgotten — in the context of a library or a conversation. Hidden gems lay undisturbed, unlike popularity-ranked internet search results that spew out the obvious and the familiar.
If you’re of a certain generation, you might remember the Tamagotchi; the Japanese pocket-sized “pet simulation game” that became the chief obsession of 90s kids bored of yo-yos and other fleeting trends. The Tamagotchi lived mostly in the grubby hands or lint-filled pockets of its owners but, for social currency, could be paraded before envious or competitive enthusiasts.
Oddly, these oviparous virtual critters weren’t remotely animallike in their appearance, and could be intolerably demanding at times. Neglect to feed them, clean up after them, or tend to them when sick and — as many of us found out — very soon you’d be left with nothing but a dead LCD blob. But even the best cared-for Tamagotchi(s?) had certain obsolescence looming in their futures, once their needlessly complex lifecycle was complete: egg, baby, child, teen, adult, death.
In other words, you don’t have to move. You can just *think* your movements.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if we’ve evolved too far..
A jazzy, high production video features grinning young San Francisco-type execs describing this new, immersive experience. They’ve invented it, and they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to foist it upon us. “The wrist is a great starting point for us technologically,” one chirps, “because it opens up new and dynamic forms of control.” Quite.
Radiologists assessing the pain experienced by osteoarthritis patients typically use a scale called the Kellgren-Lawrence Grade (KLG). The KLG calculates pain levels based on the presence of certain radiographic features, like missing cartilage or damage. But data from the National Institute of Health revealed a disparity between the level of pain as calculated by the KLG and Black patients’ self-reported experience of pain.
The MIT Technology Review explains: “Black patients who show the same amount of missing cartilage as white patients self-report higher levels of pain.”
Of course, you’ve heard this story many, many times before. An older woman looking for love and companionship meets a predator posing as a lonely heart, only to be duped out of thousands of dollars. Sometimes these cases can be frustrating, and leave us asking how the victim missed all of the glaring red flags.