Here we go again with another overhyped tech fad being heralded by creatively-deficient, gullible media executives as a game-change, when probably the only change of any import are the coins spilling into Silicon Valley vaults.
You’d think an industry dependent on advertising would be more aware. SpaceX didn't create and doesn’t fly reusable rockets — that’s hype; reality are “partially reusable” rockets nowhere close to what were sold. Elon Musk frequently claims “Full Self Driving” is imminent — it isn’t, and he now faces a Tesla shareholder lawsuit over his claims.
Famed theoretical physicist Richard Feynman would recognize hyped-up junk like that as “Cargo Cult Science” — it may look scientific, but it’s more likely reckless and dumb.
So yeah, please take the words “artificial intelligence” out of your mouths when you’re discussing the current crop of machine learning models (a subset of AI), exemplified by ChatGPT.
And oh golly is this stuff dumb, as James Bridle explores in a must-read piece for The Guardian:
In the past year, this new wave of consumer AI, which includes both image generation and tools such as ChatGPT, has captured the popular imagination. It has also provided a boost to the fortunes of major technology companies who have, despite much effort, failed to convince most of us that either blockchain or virtual reality (“the metaverse”) are the future that any of us want. At least this one feels fun, for five minutes or so; and “AI” still has that sparkly, science-fiction quality, redolent of giant robots and superhuman brains, which provides that little contact high with the genuinely novel. What’s going on under the hood, of course, is far from new.
Rest assured, no matter what strange word salad it spits out, tools like ChatGPT can’t think. It can only produce a very dumb approximation of what already has been created thanks to human imagination.
While claims about AI’s “creativity” might be overblown – there is no true originality in image generation, only very skilled imitation and pastiche – that doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of taking over many common “artistic” tasks long considered the preserve of skilled workers, from illustrators and graphic designers to musicians, videographers and, indeed, writers. This is a huge shift. AI is now engaging with the underlying experience of feeling, emotion and mood, and this will allow it to shape and influence the world at ever deeper and more persuasive levels.
For all the fun to be had watching John Oliver marry a head of cabbage, this shiny new toy carries a helluva environmental cost, as Bridle notes:
AI technologies are bad for the planet too. Training a single AI model – according to research published in 2019 – might emit the equivalent of more than 284 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is nearly five times as much as the entire lifetime of the average American car, including its manufacture. These emissions are expected to grow by nearly 50% over the next five years, all while the planet continues to heat up, acidifying the oceans, igniting wildfires, throwing up superstorms and driving species to extinction. It’s hard to think of anything more utterly stupid than artificial intelligence, as it is practiced in the current era.
Not just stupid, these fancy tools chew up the humans required to operate — thousands of very real people and their vital senses are kept hidden far from your eyes:
One of the organisations involved in data enrichment work is Sama, a US-based machine learning training institution that hires workers from Kenya, Uganda and India to label data for clients like Google, Meta and Microsoft.
An investigation by Time that was published earlier this year found that OpenAI, the owners of ChatGPT, also contracted Sama to train ChatGPT, and that workers received between $1.32 and $2 per hour for the work.
OpenAI does not disclose the names of its data enrichment partners so it is not known if it worked with other data enrichment firms to train ChatGPT.
OpenAI contracted Sama in 2021 to label textual descriptions of sexual abuse, hate speech, and violence. Time spoke to four Sama employees, who wished to remain anonymous, all of whom reported that they were "mentally scarred" by the work.
It appears executives are falling for the hype once again when they really should know better (after VR, crypto, NFTs, the metaverse, and on and on...). VentureBeat points out this dumb AI is a bigger risk than strong AI:
Real AI is in actual use, from manufacturing floors to translation services. According to McKinsey, fully 70% of companies reported revenue generation from using AI. These are not trivial applications, either — AI is being deployed in mission-critical functions today, functions most people still erroneously think are far away, and there are many examples.
The US military is already deploying autonomous weapons (specifically, quadcopter mines) that do not require human kill decisions, even though we do not yet have an autonomous weapons treaty. Amazon actually deployed an AI-powered resume sorting tool before it was retracted for sexism. Facial recognition software used by actual police departments is resulting in wrongful arrests. Epic System’s sepsis prediction systems are frequently wrong even though they are in use at hospitals across the United States. IBM even canceled a $62 million clinical radiology contract because its recommendations were “unsafe and incorrect.”
If that doesn't sound bad enough, imagine how dumb AI could transform society into something that resembles Uber surge pricing, as Matthew Barad writes on Medium:
What about a salary sheet that recommends who gets raises? A productivity algorithm that leaves a warehouse understaffed? A supply chain monitor that proposes leveling another acre for palm oil? Who objects to, or even notices, the AIs making those calls?
Millions of little choices, all made by dispassionate, unintelligent, and unbiased machines completing their instructions perfectly every day. Each one is told to maximize shareholder profit and each does so immaculately — until one day we are left with an uninhabitable planet, replete with suffering, and containing whatever remains of the servers housing those imagined profits.
Which brings us around to the cowardly media executives and their terrible, no-good decision-making. I’ve already spoken in this space about how junk data leads to bad outcomes and dull content — executives love to shield potential bad decisions with junk data rather than stick a vulnerable neck out on instinct or common sense.
Of course, it all comes back to money -- none of the executives can figure out how to make content profitable without changing the way they’ve comfortably done business for decades, as reported in Time:
Let’s review some of the biggest bafflers: The December HBO Max disappearances continued a rolling bloodbath at the newly merged Warner Bros. Discovery that began over the summer, as the company’s new CEO, David Zaslav, purged a long list of originals from the platform and scrapped completed seasons of well-liked series including TBS’s Chad and Max’s Minx. (WBD also shelved movies like Batgirl, which was already in post-production at the time.) Both shows were soon salvaged by other streamers, with Chad’s second season airing on the Roku Channel and Starz picking up Minx. Meanwhile, in November, Disney brought in its former longtime leader Iger to replace his own replacement, Bob Chapek. And just last week, Netflix unveiled its plan to crack down on password sharing—but then, amid swift subscriber backlash, the company deleted the most controversial details from its U.S. Help Center, claiming it had not intended to post them there.
Disney has produced the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a sprawling series of superhero movies, TV shows and multimedia that has grossed $29.1 billion in box office since Iron Man debuted in 2008.
Yet despite this phenomenal success for the company and its shareholders, Disney has laid off 7,000 in a strategic reorganization by returning CEO Bob Iger. Even as fans continue to tune in, Disney executives appear to be seeing just how poor the content can be received before fans reject it.
The recent MCU-entry, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, was a disappointment on several levels, not the least of which were shoddy special effects and a dark picture — an increasingly common problem across entertainment, as explained in Vulture:
It turns out critics aren’t the only ones who feel that the computer-generated imagery on Quantumania could have used a bit more fine-tuning. Some of the very VFX technicians and artists who created those sequences — who spoke with Vulture on condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation — agree that the film’s CGI-quality-control measures were subpar. Two of the three people we interviewed admitted that “shortcuts” were taken and said critical resources were diverted away to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — the follow-up to 2018’s $1.34 billion–grossing Black Panther — which was in postproduction around the same time as Quantumania. Several of the same effects houses worked on both films, creating competition for the most highly skilled VFX workers.
Like previous criticism leveled at Marvel by effects techs tired of being “pixel-fucked” and pursuing unionization, these workers say the project was severely understaffed while facing an unrealistically short deadline to hit Ant-Man’s long-established Presidents’ Day bow. The upshot: a grueling slog during which filmmakers and studio executives “nitpicked” and revised vast swaths of Quantumania without budgeting enough time to implement the changes, forcing VFX workers to toil as many as 80 hours per week for months. “This was like a second wave of what happened with James Cameron on Titanic, where the compositors were basically taking naps under their desks, because there wasn’t enough time between shifts to go back home, then come back,” one of the techs said. “Now, the entirety of the industry that has been touched by Marvel is permanently seared, and that’s what’s causing the most burnout.”
Again, these movies grossed $29.1 billion. That’s “BILLION,” with a “B.” But why hire teams to do intricate miniatures work, or practical on-set techniques, if you can fire a whole lot of people, exploit some trendy CGI tech and end up with a big bonus for cutting company overhead. Now who’s the superhero?
What do you think this wholesale removal of the human element is doing to the quality of the content? Marie Sayler observes in The Spectrum:
Unrealistic deadlines, poor communication, and a general disregard for workers’ well-being seem to characterize the complaints of current and former Marvel VFX artists – not to mention every other huge media franchise. The focus is no longer on making good movies or making good art. It’s on making rich CEOs richer and churning out mediocre film after mediocre film. When was the last time you watched a superhero movie that you actually cared about? When was the last time you left a theater thinking, “Wow, that Marvel movie was really well done and compelling.”? If you’re anything like me, it’s been a while. And a part of the reason for this is that production companies are trading good work for more money, and artistic vision for shoddy half-measures.
The business failure here is enormous — these bad executives merely see content as product. They think they can just go to the store and buy content like they go the hardware store for a hammer. They know how to stock a supply of hammers and exploit opportunities in the market to profit.
Only content isn’t manufactured quite like a hammer, is it? This has always driven these lousy executives crazy -- that they require the services of talented artists to craft something new for an audience that doesn’t know what they want. They wish they could press a clean, shiny button on their desk to dispense minimally-viable, safe(ish) content that earns a profit.
Hard to imagine why they get excited about tools like ChatGPT, right?
No scene better exemplifies this mentality than in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, where fellow director Martin Scorcese cameos as a pharmaceuticals executive accused of participating in cheating on a TV quiz show for ratings (and subsequent sales of Geritol).
The key line by Scorcese’s character, of course (at 1:46):
“Even the quiz shows will be back. Why fix them? Think about it, you can do exactly the same thing, but just making the questions easier. See, the audience didn’t tune it to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.”
If you’re detecting contempt for the audience there, you’re not off-base. Lousy executives have the entire spirit of a creative endeavor ass-backwards. They really seem to believe any content-like substance will suffice -- why pay more and cut into profits by making that content smart, interesting or brave?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret — good executives are rarely the smartest or most creative person in the room (and if they are, you ought to question that organization’s hiring practices and commitment to the personal growth of their team).
A wise executive understands their role is to champion the ideas and creativity of their team, to clear obstacles, and obtain buy-in from key stakeholders. It’s about having the humility and respect to recognize you don’t understand something, and to listen to those who have given it substantial thought.
Nowadays seems like most media companies appear satisfied to contract, reduce quality, and take on intrusive advertising audiences increasingly seem to reject. Executives need to step away from the machines and remember content is a labor of love, and it’s time to share some of the enormous wealth with the people who earned them those fat bonus checks.
Tax Musk. Fund the arts. Get a different result.
Okay, I’m through. See you in the comments.