Almost Timely News, May 14, 2023: Resistance to AI

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What’s On My Mind: Resistance to AI

Over the past week, I’ve had a chance to talk about AI – generative AI in particular – in several different industries, like healthcare, consulting, education, entertainment, and marketing. In all these different cases, there’s been a common, unsurprising thread: a significant amount of resistance by a portion of the audience. Not to me, not to the material, but to the very concept of generative AI itself.

Here are a few anonymized discussion points:

  • AI isn’t as good as what humans can create
  • AI will make us all lazy and incompetent
  • AI is going to cause mass layoffs

Let’s dig into a few of these points and present what we can for a balanced perspective on them.

AI isn’t as good as what humans can create

The blanket statement that AI isn’t as good as what humans create comes from a place of fear, fear that machines will in fact take many of the good paying creative jobs. As with all these statements, there’s nuance to it. Let’s say that quality of work is a normal distribution, a bell curve. Where does AI fall on that bell curve?

Based on stuff like what ChatGPT comes up with – especially with good, complex prompts – I think it’s fair to say that large language models create good content. Not great, not amazing, not Pulitzer Prize winning, but good. The tools are better than mediocre, which is where they were a year ago, and they’re certainly better than the word salad they spit out three years ago.

So the question for creators is, where are you individually on the bell curve? Are you a good creator? Then AI is your peer in terms of content quality. Are you a great creator? Then AI is your lesser. Are you a mediocre creator? Then AI is your better.

Here’s the question we have to ask, as human creators: does the work we do merit great, amazing, or Pulitzer Prize-winning capabilities? For some things, like our next book, I’d argue yes, we need great quality. For a press release? Good quality is probably, well, good enough.

The true challenge we human creators have to face isn’t AI today. It’s how fast AI is progressing. Three years ago, generative AI was pretty bad. Half the time, it was like watching chimpanzees play Scrabble. But there were glimmers, particularly on highly-templated content, that generative AI had promise.

Today, large language models create good content. They knock out press releases. They create competent, informative blog posts. They write moderately compelling emails. That’s how fast they’ve evolved in three years. How fast have your skills grown in that same time? That’s the challenge we face. Those of you who are great content creators, what will it take for you to become amazing? Those of you who are amazing, what will it take for you to create content at top-tier award winning levels?

AI will make us lazy and incompetent

The second claim that AI will make us lazy and incompetent has some truth to it as well. How many people under the age of 30 feel confident in their ability to navigate to an unknown destination using only a paper map? Fewer than those who feel confident in doing so with a map application on their smartphones. How many people feel confident looking up a topic in a hardcover encyclopedia? Fewer than those who feel confident Googling for something.

There’s absolutely no question that technology has changed how we think, how we work, how we get things done. We have, without reasonable doubt, lost some skills along the way. We’ve replaced map reading with map application navigation. We’ve replaced memorizing friends’ phone numbers with contact files on our smartphones. But in doing so, we’ve freed up good chunks of our cognitive capacity to do other things.

People – and all life, really – will always default to doing things as easily as possible, with as little effort as possible. That’s nature. Natural selection favors those who can conserve resources over those who expend them fruitlessly. Anything we can do to make things better, faster, or cheaper, we do. The role of AI in that scenario should be obvious: we will use it to do less, to defer more to machines.

This is not new. This is a tale as old as time. We invented stone tools so we could stop using our hands to dig in the dirt. We created machines to do heavy labor so we wouldn’t have to. In the same way that machines alleviated much of our strain in the Industrial Revolution, AI will do the same in the Intelligence Revolution. And just as those revolutions allowed us to benefit more broadly in the past, so will that also happen in the present.

This particular argument is behind some of what I think are the dumbest moves you can make. In school after school, office after office, I see people sticking their heads in the sand. They’re pretending AI doesn’t exist – from the Writer’s Guild of America to the local high school. I got an email the other day from our local school announcing the ban of ChatGPT and reassuring parents it had been blocked on the school’s Internet. Never mind standalone services like GPT4ALL that can run locally on your computer without Internet access at all, clearly the folks who have implemented these rules don’t understand how smartphones work.

Prohibiting some people from using AI and permitting others to use it only creates more fractures and divisions in society. If we want an equitable, fair society, we need to make sure everyone has equal access to powerful tools and equal access for how to use them well. If we want a just and moral society, we need to ensure people learn morals and justice alongside the tools, not forbidding the use of the tools and then wondering why human nature leads people to misuse the tools they stumbled upon with no guidance at all.

AI will cause mass layoffs

Will it all be smooth going? Of course not. More and more labor economists, partnering with AI thought leaders, are estimating that AI will consume 30% or so of current jobs. I think that’s on the low side, personally. I feel like the figure is probably closer to 50%. But just as the vast majority of the workforce labored in fields three hundred years ago and very, very few people comparatively do so now, so will we expect to see similar shifts in knowledge work. What those new jobs will be, we don’t know.

This statement I think is the most true of the three. AI will cause substantial changes in labor, in how we do work. And those changes will have substantial economic impacts, impacts that we are underestimating right now. Whether it’s 5%, 30%, 50%, the percentages don’t matter as much as the recognition that change is happening right now in a giant way, and the sooner we recognize it, the sooner we can do something about it.

Some of those solutions may be things like universal basic income, funded by “robot taxes”. The implementation of that is still murky, but it’s clear that any profession which uses language or creativity – and let’s face it, that’s a lot of professions – will be significantly impacted by AI, especially in capitalist economies where AI leads to dramatic increases in profitability when used effectively, at the expense of wages and workers.

Other solutions will be all about the integration and supervision of AI by humans. This is critically important and harkens back to point 2: people do tend to take the path of least resistance. Having humans continue to be fact checkers, supervisors, conductors of the machine orchestra if you will, will be our most important roles because machines are only as good as the data they’re trained on. And let’s face it, a lot of what’s on the Internet is crap. Any implementation of AI which promises to be turnkey, fire and forget is likely dangerous. You wouldn’t just send your self driving car out for a Sunday drive without you in it, right? Nor should you just deploy AI and then forget about it.

Are the reasons for opposition of AI that we started with valid? Yes and no. There are real concerns underlying those reasons. There are real viewpoints that need to be acknowledged and addressed, and real nuances that we need to communicate. There are also plenty of bad actors who will misuse AI in every way possible, and we need to be prepared for that as well. The only way to accomplish all this is with human integration at every opportunity and a willingness to intentionally sacrifice some efficiency, some effectiveness, some profitability, to ensure a balanced use of AI that’s more beneficial than harmful.

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ICYMI: In Case You Missed it

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See you next week,

Christopher S. Penn


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