I must admit that the whole concept of AI is perplexing. This week in the Guardian one of my favorite environmental authors, Naomi Klein, wrote a sobering article in the Guardian about AI
‘And their goal never was to solve climate change or make our governments more responsible or our daily lives more leisurely.’
it’s helpful to think about the purpose the utopian hallucinations about AI are serving. What work are these benevolent stories doing in the culture as we encounter these strange new tools? Here is one hypothesis: they are the powerful and enticing cover stories for what may turn out to be the largest and most consequential theft in human history. Because what we are witnessing is the wealthiest companies in history (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Meta, Amazon …) unilaterally seizing the sum total of human knowledge that exists in digital, scrapable form and walling it off inside proprietary products, many of which will take direct aim at the humans whose lifetime of labor trained the machines without giving permission or consent.
She then reflected on how Silicon Valley operates:
The trick, of course, is that Silicon Valley routinely calls theft “disruption” – and too often gets away with it. We know this move: charge ahead into lawless territory; claim the old rules don’t apply to your new tech; scream that regulation will only help China – all while you get your facts solidly on the ground. By the time we all get over the novelty of these new toys and start taking stock of the social, political and economic wreckage, the tech is already so ubiquitous that the courts and policymakers throw up their hands.
We saw it with Google’s book and art scanning. With Musk’s space colonization. With Uber’s assault on the taxi industry. With Airbnb’s attack on the rental market. With Facebook’s promiscuity with our data. Don’t ask for permission, the disruptors like to say, ask for forgiveness. (And lubricate the asks with generous campaign contributions.)
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff meticulously details how Google’s Street View maps steamrolled over privacy norms by sending its camera-bedecked cars out to photograph our public roadways and the exteriors of our homes. By the time the lawsuits defending privacy rights rolled around, Street View was already so ubiquitous on our devices (and so cool, and so convenient …) that few courts outside Germany were willing to intervene.
Now the same thing that happened to the exterior of our homes is happening to our words, our images, our songs, our entire digital lives. All are currently being seized and used to train the machines to simulate thinking and creativity. These companies must know they are engaged in theft, or at least that a strong case can be made that they are. They are just hoping that the old playbook works one more time – that the scale of the heist is already so large and unfolding with such speed that courts and policymakers will once again throw up their hands in the face of the supposed inevitability of it all.
She quoted Geoffrey Hinton, often referred to as “the godfather of AI” who just quit a senior role at Google so that he could speak freely about the risks of the technology he helped create, including, as he told the New York Times, the risk that people will “not be able to know what is true anymore”. To which Naomi replied:
It would be awfully nice if AI really could sever the link between corporate money and reckless policy making – but that link has everything to do with why companies like Google and Microsoft have been allowed to release their chatbots to the public despite the avalanche of warnings and known risks.
This is part of a now familiar Silicon Valley playbook. First, create an attractive product (a search engine, a mapping tool, a social network, a video platform, a ride share …); give it away for free or almost free for a few years, with no discernible viable business model (“Play around with the bots,” they tell us, “see what fun things you can create!”); make lots of lofty claims about how you are only doing it because you want to create a “town square” or an “information commons” or “connect the people”, all while spreading freedom and democracy (and not being “evil”). Then watch as people get hooked using these free tools and your competitors declare bankruptcy. Once the field is clear, introduce the targeted ads, the constant surveillance, the police and military contracts, the black-box data sales and the escalating subscription fees.
Many lives and sectors have been decimated by earlier iterations of this playbook, from taxi drivers to rental markets to local newspapers. With the AI revolution, these kinds of losses could look like rounding errors, with teachers, coders, visual artists, journalists, translators, musicians, care workers, coders and so many others facing the prospect of having their incomes replaced by glitchy code.