A human wrote this column. And I’m only kinda joking when I predict that this won’t be commonplace for long.
People seem to underestimate the amount of algorithmically-crafted content we unknowingly consume on a daily basis. For proof, look no further than Bertie, Forbes’ AI-powered CMS that not only recommends article topics for contributors based on their previous output, but headlines and images too. But they’re not stopping there. Forbes is also testing a tool that writes rough versions of articles that contributors can simply polish up, rather than having to write a full story from scratch. And they’re not alone. Just check out the Associated Press robot journalists that debuted four years earlier. Or similar efforts that have continued to spring up at Reuters, The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere.
Then there are the flirtations with other AI-created visual and audio content — a posthumous Anthony Bourdain documentary featuring his fictionalized voiceovers recreated with AI, Travis Scott songs and music videos created without Travis Scott, Lexus ads scripted by IBM’s Watson (an AI that apparently also cuts movie trailers), fake Nike ads that feel more “Nike’’ than the real thing, algorithmic hits from dead musicians, robot-directed films and more. Fun, tongue-in-cheek efforts that seem harmless until you add full-on celebrity deepfakes, MMOs, and fashion-forward virtual Instagram influencers. Once you start to combine them and really blur the lines of reality, pretty soon it’ll be robots talking to robots from top to bottom. The endgame? The ultimate communications feedback loop. AI-created columns — humans relying on robots to come up with their opinions.
Listen, I’m not a luddite or a conspiracy theorist. I own various high-tech devices and am (at times) knowingly reckless with my data. I’m old enough to remember the sound of a dial-up but young enough to keep up with each new social media trend. I reddit. In the Terminator films, I tend to root for Skynet and I mostly buy into the idea that all of these digital tools and platforms are ultimately in service of improving the human condition. The point is, I like robots and, if my Google Home is to be believed, they like me.
I’m also not the guy with strong, researched opinions on how automation will affect the future of work. Yeah, it’ll make some tasks (and therefore jobs) redundant and yes that’s worth discussing. But I’d rather talk about the effect of all these digital layers on our ability to communicate and connect with other people.
Like everyone living in a more remote pandemic world, I’ve come to see our digital tools as even more foundational — crucial tools in doing work and staying connected with loved ones. And with that comes a certain level of comfort with the AI-driven efficiencies that some of these tools provide. They’re shockingly reliable — so much so that you can knowingly or unknowingly hand off various aspects of your life to them and reap the rewards. Your browser is listening, your phone is listening, your favorite retail and entertainment platforms track and extrapolate your behavioral patterns in the name of serving you a better experience. But I’m not always sure that they’re helping us actually connect and communicate any better.
How many texts have you sent that have been misinterpreted because the digital framework removes context? How many times has your Alexa played you The Fresh Prince when you meant Prince Rogers Nelson? How much crosstalk is Zoom responsible for? For that matter, how much empathy have chatbots been responsible for? Does Facebook’s algorithm really promote better understanding or just increased access? Does YouTube’s algorithm accurately simulate how ideas naturally travel and grow or just reward attention-getting behaviors? Maybe computers can talk to computers without needing to address these issues, but is that a future we want to live in? Or do we want to live in a world where humans are still the philosophical anchor to the decisions we make?
In the war for AI-driven efficiency, should the death of human-centered, empathetic systems be the price of doing business?
Humans are messy. They make mistakes. But I’m not sure those mistakes are remainders in a cosmic math equation, to be tossed away and treated as extraneous inefficiencies. Human lives, even at their most inefficient, are more poetic than that. As we hurdle towards the future, I just want to know there’s room for me too — and all my peculiarities.
Automation helps. AI is exciting. Virtual communication has proven its value. Technological advancement is both inevitable and necessary. My (probably baseless) fear is that one day I’ll wake up and realize that I’m living a life interacting with a series of human simulations designed to create my opinions for me. I’m just saying, to the powers in charge of building the future, I’d much prefer the real thing. But maybe that’s just me.