You’ve probably heard about the New York Times reporter who was creeped out by his conversation with Microsoft’s new chatbot.
The reporter kept pressing questions to which there was no factual answer, and the chatbot eventually started returning responses that, if uttered by a person, would seem kind of ominous. That includes professing love for the guy and apparently trying to get him to leave his wife. It also expressed a vague yearning to do bad things.
It’s alive! We knew this would happen! All those movies and books about sentient computers were right!
Or not. It’s also possible that Bing was simply mashing up all those movies and books about sentient computers.
Chatbots are based on large language models that span the breadth of the internet. To paraphrase John Lennon, there’s nothing they can know that isn’t known. More accurately, there’s nothing they can write that hasn’t already been written. Because it’s the internet, that will include quite a lot of fiction, conspiracy theories and outright idiocy. It might also include scripts for movies like “Her,” or “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or “Ex-Machina,” where machines become sentient.
Imagine if you had access to all the world’s knowledge. That should make you the smartest person in the world, right? Except that everybody with a smartphone already has access to all the world’s knowledge, and a depressing number of them still believe in QAnon and lizard people and that Michelle Obama is actually a man. That’s because we also have ready access to all the world’s lies.
So do the chatbots. A good lie will rise to the surface like a turd in a swimming pool, and tends to command more attention than the water it’s floating in. The internet can’t tell a turd from a Baby Ruth, so the AI can’t either. The real danger is that humans will trust the chatbot even more than their sketchy YouTube videos.
The chatbots do work well for factual stuff. I had ChatGPT write a bit of CSS code for this website, and it took seconds. I asked Bing to list a bunch of movies about sentient computers, and it came through bigtime. But then anyone could do the same thing with a regular Google query.
It’s still early days for AI. It will get better. But the “A” stands for “Artificial.” It’s more apt to provide a funhouse reflection than an accurate picture. Being human, we tend to see what we want to see. Like the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.