AI and chatbots are coming for us

Moving fast and breaking things is what we do

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

We have met the enemy and he is us. -Pogo

It would be easy to make the argument that every technological development, from fire to the microchip and every household/kitchen appliance, was made with the intention to make our lives better, safer and easier. How well our devices live up to their marketing – and our expectations – is an entirely different question.

These developments a century or so ago were largely mechanical. In the past fifty or so years they have been predominantly electronic and technological.

In other words, the previous generation of invention was largely centered around replacing or supplementing sheer physical muscle power. Whether animal (as in horse or oxen mostly) or human, all manner of engines and machines took the place of brute force.

In the lifetimes of most of us, devices have taken on a more monitoring, counting or measuring aspect. Computers or computer-assisted devices have invaded every crevice of our lives, leaving us with minimal privacy, and some would say, our own thoughts and identity.

But, of course, the devices did not stop there.

Enter the Chatbots

I’ve been researching, even working with Artificial Intelligence (AI) for many years. The idea, in some format, has been around for decades.

Alan Turing, the pioneering British computer scientist wondered whether machines could think. In 1950, he published his revolutionary article ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence.’

He developed a working definition of intelligence for machines. According to him, if a machine can impersonate a human and their behavior and convince the other person involved in a real-time conversation that he is interacting with a human (not a machine), then the machine is intelligent. This was called the Turing test.

A few decades ago, I introduced students to ELIZA, which was designed essentially to trick users by making them believe that they were having a conversation with a real human being – in this case a therapist who would ask open-ended questions and respond with very general follow-up statements or questions. It was almost convincing.

ELIZA was something like a breakthrough, but it quickly revealed the shortcomings of machine (and maybe human) interactions. It could repeat, rephrase or echo what was entered, but could not “comprehend” what was being entered.

If you’d like to meet the precursor of today’s chatbots, you can converse with ELIZA here.

Every technological development took, changed, or erased jobs – sometimes entire industries.

Chatbots could be the worst, or at least most disruptive of all. Chatbots promise (or threaten) to talk at, to or with us. And they intend to do so, in most cases, without letting us know when there is, or is not, a human on the other end of the conversation.

I just want to talk to a human!

You could file this section under “Problems our parents never had”.

Call centers and help lines have been introducing chatbots to their “customer service” lines for quite a while now. And sometimes they are helpful. But when they are not, they can be frustrating beyond belief.

Chatbots “recognize” words – but they don’t “understand” them – at least as a human might.

I often find that my question or concern is too complicated – or sometimes too simple – for a machine to respond to in a satisfactory way. But in most cases, a routine, semi-predictable answer is adequate.

So adequate in fact that IBM recently announced that they expect to eliminate 30% of their current positions over the next five years.

These would be jobs like paralegals, personal assistants and translators. And many more. In short, anything that uses words as a transaction is in danger of being replaced by AI.

For some, this puts in a reverse of the Turing test; we don’t need to define intelligence – we need to define what it is to be human. Fortunately there is far more to being human than answering questions – and transcribing answers.

Machines have always promised to make us (or at least help us) be more free and productive (or at least one of those).

But machines of our own creation tend to remind us that they do far more than replace our labor – to some degree they replace us.

When it comes to working, writing or analyzing, we humans need to step up our game because when it comes to our careers, if you can’t do it better than AI, you’ll be at risk of being replaced.

As always, the stakes are far higher

Crooks, scammers and cult leaders love (and use) AI as much as anyone else. Cyberattacks and ransomware attacks are far easier thanks to AI.

These won’t be clumsy emails from Nigerian princes with too much cash, they will be convincing faked voices of your friends and relatives. Or “deep fakes” of politicians or celebrities you love or hate.

The internet is forever. AI is everywhere.

You’ve heard that the internet is forever, but now, AI is everywhere.

Across America we have 70 million cameras keeping an eye on us all. From RING doorbells to grocery store and traffic monitors, cameras are in just about every public place.

Israel and China use AI powered facial recognition on a regular basis.

Dictators, autocrats and bullies at all level can use AI to monitor and control all of us as never before in human history.

“Move fast and break things” just might sum up our trajectory.