728 x 90

Real and Artificial Intelligence

Right now, just as I’m writing these words, I’m coming off two hours of revelations that have left me reeling. The phrase mind-blowing is a gross understatement of what has shaken my world to the core.

One cause of this interior earthquake is a poem, “What It Means to Be an American.” Here are the first, second, and last of its six stanzas:

“I am an American, born and raised,

In a land of opportunity and praise.

A country diverse in every way,

Where different cultures come to stay. …

We are a people who value our rights,

Our freedom to speak and take up our fights.

To vote and to voice our opinions loud,

In hopes of a better tomorrow, we are proud. …

I am an American, a citizen of this land,

And I believe in the power of our collective hand.

To make a difference, to change the world,

With a spirit of hope and a flag unfurled.”

It’s a little clunky, a sort of mimicry of poet Stephen Vincent Benét. “Collective hand” strikes me as strangely un-American, and “praise” in the second line seems artificial, employed for rhyme rather than reason. On the other hand, “Where different cultures come to stay” and the ending, “a flag unfurled,” were nice touches.

Whatever the quality, the poet who composed these lines is quick. This poem took about five seconds to write.

Welcome to my first encounter with AI.

My son and I were talking on the phone when I mentioned I intended to write a series of pieces about being an American, our current state of decline, and possible measures for the restoration of the republic. We then slipped into the topic of artificial intelligence. “Hey, let me show you something,” JP said. He punched in “What it means to be an American” on his phone and then read me a short, well-written essay that an AI had spit out in seconds.

While my mind was still reeling, my son asked AI to write a poem about being an American. The verses recorded above smacked me in the head like a left hook. “Okay,” I said. “How about a love scene written in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald?” In less than 10 seconds, out popped the response, which began, “Her lips were red as an open wound.” The rest was mediocre stuff, but so are most love scenes. Still, this was the uppercut that staggered me.

Readers already familiar with AI may wonder at my naivety, but there it is. I’ve read about AI for months here and there online but had never before witnessed ChatGPT in action.

I’d heard from two teachers, and read accounts online, of students now using AI to write their papers and complete take-home exams. Once I worried aloud to a tech-savvy friend that soon even doctors and lawyers might cheat their way to a degree. “No worries there,” he said. “AI will take their place, too.” That same friend, who plays the stock market, also mentioned that human beings now have less control over the market than do computers. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs are also using AI to write certain articles and reports.

For others who think that AI and robots will never threaten their jobs, I invite them to visit my local grocery store. One cashier at the self-checkout line now does the work of six, robots clean the floors, and stock clerks use hand-held electronic devices to check inventory more quickly and more accurately than a squad of employees. All of these devices are, I suspect, already antiques, to be replaced by more advanced robotics in the near future.

To give credit where it is due, the creators of artificial intelligence are geniuses. They’re inventing machines that can think faster than humans, can write and calculate better, and may bestow great benefits in fields ranging from medicine to finance.

Yet there may be a much darker side than student plagiarism to artificial intelligence. In a recent interview with Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk warned that AI has the “potential of civilization destruction.” When asked by Carlson how long before the dangers posed by AI might be imminent, particularly to a democracy, Musk said that these may already be present. “Things are getting weird,” he said, “and they’re getting weird fast.”

Is AI dangerous to humans, as Musk contends? Search out that question online, and you’ll find an ongoing debate over its benefits, limitations, and risks. The defenders of AI promise great advances and comforts for all as AI becomes even more sophisticated, yet these seductive temptations brought to my mind the words of John the Savage in Brave New World: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

With artificial intelligence now a reality—and certain to become even more powerful—we are standing on a precipice. If we fall into this pit, we may well lose our humanity. Now more than ever is the time to read the great literature and poetry of our civilization, to remember what it means to be human, and to reject that which diminishes our souls.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons-Mirko Tobias Schaefer, CC BY 2.0



Posts Carousel