Another day, another sign that we have fallen down the rabbit hole when it comes to all things artificial intelligence. Last week, the creator of ChatGPT stood in front of US senators and warned them that AI could “cause significant harm to the world”. Calling for greater regulation of the very technology he helped to create, Sam Altman said: “My worst fear is that … if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong.”
In a world where it is increasingly hard to know what is real and what is a chatbot, you’ve got to admire Altman’s honesty.
To understand the significance of his testimony, we should perhaps view it as the near equivalent of a 1950s Marlboro Man tearing up his ad script and screaming to the camera, at the top of his not-yet-diseased lungs, “that delicious fag you are smoking will end up killing you one day!”
Much like cigarettes, AI seems to be the gift that keeps on taking, and yet still we are in thrall to it, refusing to look away from our screens as a computer programme does our children’s homework, or writes a poem for our elderly mum on her birthday. We dance around and laugh at most AI as if it is the robot in the Smash advert, and yet here is the creator of an advanced chatbot telling us AI has more in common with the Terminator. Hasta la vista, humans!
My biggest concern about AI is not that it’s going to go rogue, or that Arnold Schwarzenegger is by now far too old to save us from it. It’s that it’s sending us rogue, and causing a Skynet-style apocalypse when it comes to the self-esteem of young people all over the world. The day before Altman gave his testimony to the Senate, an eating disorders organisation used AI to create images of the “ideal” man and woman, according to our use of social media. The results were frightening, though only because it seems difficult to tell the difference between the AI renderings and the average contestant on Love Island.
The ideal human, according to the AI used by The Bulimia Project, has big hair, big boobs, big muscles, perfect teeth and olive skin. The women are mostly blonde, the men mostly dark and handsome. They are pouty, and curvy in all the right places. Nothing sags, other than your heart as you realise this is what our children are aspiring to look like right now: computer-generated animations about as human as Mr Potato Head. Explaining the findings, The Bulimia Project said: “We can only assume that the reason AI came up with so many oddly shaped versions of the physiques it found on social media is that these platforms promote unrealistic body types to begin with.”
But here is the sad truth: nothing AI produces could possibly be weirder than what humans have already conjured through a combination of filters, plastic surgeons and tweakments. The computers are simply responding to our most basic instincts, which are written all over the internet for any Silicon Valley tech whizz to mine and sell back to us as we browse social media.
But just because quite a lot of people late at night, in the privacy of their own home, like watching pneumatic blondes have sex with handsome men, it doesn’t mean we all need to look that way in our day to day life. And yet … thanks to technology, to the unstoppable march of the social media algorithm (another form of AI), it is now perfectly normal to go out for dinner looking like Catwoman. Nobody raises an eyebrow at swollen, surgically enhanced lips – and not just because their foreheads are all frozen by Botox.
In her MaddAddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood imagined a world in the near future where humans are genetically modified and wear symbiotic skin suits so that they can look any way they want. Scientists strive to eradicate all flaws, but ultimately they eradicate humans, after a pandemic is unleashed via a wonder drug that promises everlasting health and happiness.
There’s a lesson there, if you fancy wading through 1,000-plus pages that at times make The Handmaid’s Tale look like Milly-Molly-Mandy.
If you can’t stomach that, watch I Am Ruth, in which Kate Winslet plays the mother of a teenager lost online in social media. Winning a Bafta for the role earlier this month, Winslet used her acceptance speech to call for tougher legislation (watered down and incredibly delayed, the Online Safety Bill is still being looked at by the House of Lords). “For young people who have become addicted to social media and its darker sides: this does not need to be your life,” said the actress, whose child was played by her actual daughter, Mia Threapleton. “To people in power, and to people who can make change: please, criminalise harmful content.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again until something actually changes: big tech is as addictive as any illegal drug you fear your children might come across, and we are allowing this social-media addiction to grow right under our noses, in our own homes. It’s time we stood up to tech firms – before it’s too late, and those cute looking chatbots start standing up to us.
Do you agree with AI’s idea of perfection? Please let us know in the comments
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