Runaway growth of AI chatbots portends a future poised between utopia and dystopia

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Updated 18 April 2023

Runaway growth of AI chatbots portends a future poised between utopia and dystopia

  • Engineers who had been slogging away for years in academia and industry are finally having their day in the sun
  • Job displacements and social upheavals are nothing compared to the extreme risks posed by advancing AI tech

DUBAI: It was way back in the late 1980s that I first encountered the expressions “artificial intelligence,” “pattern recognition” and “image processing.” I was completing the final semester of my undergrad college studies, while also writing up my last story for the campus magazine of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur.

Never having come across these technical terms during the four years I majored in instrumentation engineering, I was surprised to discover that the smartest professors and the brightest postgrad students of the electronics and computer science and engineering departments of my own college were neck-deep in research and development work involving AI technologies. All while I was blissfully preoccupied with the latest Madonna and Billy Joel music videos and Time magazine stories about glasnost and perestroika.

Now that the genie is out, the question is whether or not Big Tech is willing or even able to address the issues raised by the runaway growth of AI. (Supplied)

More than three decades on, William Faulkner’s oft-quoted saying, “the past is never dead. It is not even past,” rings resoundingly true to me, albeit for reasons more mundane than sublime. Terms I seldom bumped into as a newspaperman and editor since leaving campus — “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning” and “robotics” — have sneaked back into my life, this time not as semantic curiosities but as man-made creations for good or ill, with the power to make me redundant.

Indeed, an entire cottage industry that did not exist just six months ago has sprung up to both feed and whet a ravenous global public appetite for information on, and insights into, ChatGPT and other AI-powered web tools.

Teachers are seen behind a laptop during a workshop on ChatGpt bot organized by the School Media Service (SEM) of the Public education of the Swiss canton of Geneva on February 1, 2023. (AFP)

The initial questions about what kind of jobs would be created and how many professions would be affected, have given way to far more profound discussions. Can conventional religions survive the challenges that will spring from artificial intelligence in due course? Will humans ever need to wrack their brains to write fiction, compose music or paint masterpieces? How long will it take before a definitive cure for cancer is found? Can public services and government functions be performed by vastly more efficient and cheaper chatbots in the future?

Even until October last year, few of us employed outside of the arcane world of AI could have anticipated an explosion of existential questions of this magnitude in our lifetime. The speed with which they have moved from the fringes of public discourse to center stage is at once a reflection of the severely disruptive nature of the developments and their potentially unsettling impact on the future of civilization. Like it or not, we are all engineers and philosophers now.

Attendees watch a demonstration on artificial intelligence during the LEAP Conference in Riyadh last February. (Supplied)

By most accounts, as yet no jobs have been eliminated and no collapse of the post-Impressionist art market has occurred as a result of the adoption of AI-powered web tools, but if the past (as well as Ernest Hemingway’s famous phrase) is any guide, change will happen at first “gradually, then suddenly.”

In any event, the world of work has been evolving almost imperceptibly but steadily since automation disrupted the settled rhythms of manufacturing and service industries that were essentially byproducts of the First Industrial Revolution.

For people of my age group, a visit to a bank today bears little resemblance to one undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s, when withdrawing cash meant standing in an orderly line first for a metal token, then waiting patiently in a different queue to receive a wad of hand-counted currency notes, each process involving the signing of multiple counterfoils and the spending of precious hours.

Although the level of efficiency likely varied from country to country, the workflow required to dispense cash to bank customers before the advent of automated teller machines was more or less the same.

Similarly, a visit to a supermarket in any modern city these days feels rather different from the experience of the late 1990s. The row upon row of checkout staff have all but disappeared, leaving behind a lean-and-mean mix with the balance tilted decidedly in favor of self-service lanes equipped with bar-code scanners, contactless credit-card readers and thermal receipt printers.

Whatever one may call these endangered jobs in retrospect, minimum-wage drudgery or decent livelihood, society seems to have accepted that there is no turning the clock back on technological advances whose benefits outweigh the costs, at least from the point of view of business owners and shareholders of banks and supermarket chains.

Likewise, with the rise of generative AI (GenAI) a new world order (or disorder) is bound to emerge, perhaps sooner rather than later, but of what kind, only time will tell.

Just 4 months since ChatGPT was launched, Open AI's conversational chat bot is now facing at least two complaints before a regulatory body in France on the use of personal data. (AFP)

In theory, ChatGPT could tell too. To this end, many a publication, including Arab News, has carried interviews with the chatbot, hoping to get the truth from the machine’s mouth, so to say, instead of relying on the thoughts and prescience of mere humans.

But the trouble with ChatGPT is that the answers it punches out depend on the “prompts” or questions it is asked. The answers will also vary with every update of its training data and the lessons it draws from these data sets’ internal patterns and relationships. Put simply, what ChatGPT or GPT-4 says about its destructive powers today is unlikely to remain unchanged a few months from now.

Meanwhile, tantalizing though the tidbits have been, the occasional interview with the CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, or the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, has shed little light on the ramifications of rapid GenAI advances for humanity.

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, left, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. (AFP)

With multibillion-dollar investments at stake and competition for market share intensifying between Silicon Valley companies, these chief executives, as also Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, can hardly be expected to objectively answer the many burning questions, starting with whether Big Tech ought to declare “a complete global moratorium on the development of AI.”

Unfortunately for a large swathe of humanity, the great debates of the day, featuring polymaths who can talk without fear or favor about a huge range of intellectual and political trends, are raging mostly out of reach behind strict paywalls of publications such as Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Time.

An essay by Niall Ferguson, the pre-eminent historian of the ideas that define our time, published in Bloomberg on April 9, offers a peek into the deepest worries of philosophers and futurists, implying that the fears of large-scale job displacements and social upheavals are nothing compared to the extreme risks posed by galloping AI advancements.

“Most AI does things that offer benefits not threats to humanity … The debate we are having today is about a particular branch of AI: the large language models (LLMs) produced by organizations such as OpenAI, notably ChatGPT and its more powerful successor GPT-4,” Ferguson wrote before going on to unpack the downsides.

In sum, he said: “The more I read about GPT-4, the more I think we are talking here not about artificial intelligence … but inhuman intelligence, which we have designed and trained to sound convincingly like us. … How might AI off us? Not by producing (Arnold) Schwarzenegger-like killer androids (of the 1984 film “The Terminator”), but merely by using its power to mimic us in order to drive us insane and collectively into civil war.”

Intellectually ready or not, behemoths such as Microsoft, Google and Meta, together with not-so-well-known startups like Adept AI Labs, Anthropic, Cohere and Stable Diffusion API, have had greatness thrust upon them by virtue of having developed their own LLMs with the aid of advances in computational power and mathematical techniques that have made it possible to train AI on ever larger data sets than before.

Just like in Hindu mythology, where Shiva, as the Lord of Dance Nataraja, takes on the persona of a creator, protector and destroyer, in the real world tech giants and startups (answerable primarily to profit-seeking shareholders and venture capitalists) find themselves playing what many regard as the combined role of creator, protector and potential destroyer of human civilization.

Microsoft is the “exclusive” provider of cloud computing services to OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT. (AFP file)

While it does seem that a science-fiction future is closer than ever before, no technology exists as of now to turn back time to 1992 and enable me to switch from instrumentation engineering to computer science instead of a vulnerable occupation like journalism. Jokes aside, it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I have not been pondering the “what-if” scenarios of late.

Not because I am terrified of being replaced by an AI-powered chatbot in the near future and compelled to sign up for retraining as a food-delivery driver. Journalists are certainly better psychologically prepared for such a drastic reversal of fortune than the bankers and property owners in Thailand who overnight had to learn to sell food on the footpaths of Bangkok to make a living in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The regret I have is more philosophical than material: We are living in a time when engineers who had been slogging away for years in the forgotten groves of academe and industry, pushing the boundaries of AI and machine learning one autocorrect code at a time, are finally getting their due as the true masters of the universe. It would have felt good to be one of them, no matter how relatively insignificant one’s individual contribution.

There is a vicarious thrill, though, in tracking the achievements of a man by the name of P. Sundarajan, who won admission to my alma mater to study metallurgical engineering one year after I graduated.

Google Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai (C) is applauded as he arrives to address students during a forum at The Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, India, on January 5, 2017. (AFP file)

Now 50 years old, he has a big responsibility in shaping the GenAI landscape, although he probably had no inkling of what fate had in store for him when he was focused on his electronic materials project in the final year of his undergrad studies. That person is none other than Sundar Pichai, whose path to the office of Google CEO went via IIT Kharagpur, Stanford University and Wharton business school.

Now, just as in the final semester of my engineering studies, I have no illusions about the exceptionally high IQ required to be even a writer of code for sophisticated computer programs. In an age of increasing specialization, “horses for courses” is not only a rational approach, it is practically the only game in town.

I am perfectly content with the knowledge that in the pre-digital 1980s, well before the internet as we know it had even been created, I had got a glimpse of the distant exciting future while reporting on “artificial intelligence,” “pattern recognition” and “image processing.” Only now do I fully appreciate how great a privilege it was.


Vanity Fair France apologizes for removing Palestinian pin from image of Guy Pearce at Cannes

Updated 27 May 2024

Vanity Fair France apologizes for removing Palestinian pin from image of Guy Pearce at Cannes

  • Magazine faced backlash on social media for appeared attempt to censor pro-Palestinian solidarity

LONDON: Vanity Fair France was forced to issue an apology for digitally removing a Palestinian pin worn by actor Guy Pearce at the Cannes Film Festival.

On May 21, Vanity Fair published an article featuring several photographs of celebrities attending the festival. Among these was a portrait of Pearce wearing a black Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo.

Social media users quickly noticed that a pin of the Palestinian flag seen on his left lapel in other images had been removed.

Journalist Ahmed Hathout was one of the first to highlight the alteration, tweeting: “So Guy Pearce showed solidarity with Palestine at Cannes by wearing a pin and Vanity Fair decided to photoshop it out. Little did they know the bracelet was also of the Palestinian flag colors.”

The French subsidiary of the American magazine faced significant backlash on social media for what appeared to be an attempt to censor pro-Palestinian solidarity.

One user, @DarkSkyLady, tweeted: “Can we finally admit many of these outlets are propaganda-mouthpieces for colonialism and white supremacy?”

Another user, @Joey_Oey89, commented: “Reminder to unfollow and mute Vanity Fair. They smear celebs who take a stand against genocide and have made their stance clear.”

Responding to the criticism, Vanity Fair France posted an apology under Hathout’s tweet: “Good evening. We mistakenly published a modified version of this photo on the website. The original version was published on Instagram on the same day. We have rectified our error and apologize.”

The article on the magazine’s website now displays the unaltered image.

Pearce was among many celebrities at the prestigious festival who expressed solidarity with Palestine amid Israel’s brutal assault and seige on Gaza.

Other notable figures included actors Cate Blanchett and Pascale Kann, supermodel Bella Hadid, Indian actress Kani Kusrut, French actress Leila Bekhti, and Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El-Moudir.

Online anger following The Atlantic’s ‘possible to kill children legally’ in Gaza article

Updated 27 May 2024

Online anger following The Atlantic’s ‘possible to kill children legally’ in Gaza article

  • The Atlantic’s writer Graeme Wood suggested that in certain scenarios killing of children can be legally justifiable
  • Campaign group condemned the piece, calling the The Atlantic’s stance on the issue ‘egregious’

LONDON: The Atlantic has ignited a wave of online criticism after publishing an article arguing that “it is possible to kill children legally” in Gaza.

Titled “The UN’s Gaza Statistics Make No Sense,” the opinion piece by staff writer Graeme Wood questioned the accuracy of the UN’s civilian death toll numbers from the Israeli war on Gaza.

Wood suggested that the UN’s statistics were unreliable, claiming they are sourced from Hamas.

“The UN numbers changed because the UN has little idea how many children have been killed in Gaza, beyond ‘a lot.’ It gets its statistics from Hamas,” the piece read.

Wood, known for his skeptical stance toward Hamas and Palestine since the conflict erupted last October, controversially suggested that in certain scenarios, the killing of children can be legally justifiable.

Despite acknowledging that “even when conducted legally, war is ugly,” Wood argued, “It is possible to kill children legally, if for example one is being attacked by an enemy who hides behind them. But the sight of a legally killed child is no less disturbing than the sight of a murdered one,” he wrote.

The article sparked a significant online backlash, with the campaign group Writers Against the War on Gaza (WAWOG) condemning The Atlantic for the article.

“Eight months into the genocide and western media is still manufacturing consent for Zionism,” the group wrote in a post on X on Sunday.

“Defending child murder is egregious; but @TheAtlantic has historically defended imperial bloodshed,” WAWOG added.

Users took to social media to express their frustration over the article, with some questioning the legality of Wood’s claim and calling his choice of words “disgusting.”

“‘A legally killed child’ is a phrase I never imagined I would read in my lifetime,” wrote Lebanese political activist and musician Peter Daou on X.

Others have also called for canceling their subscriptions to The Atlantic.

The backlash comes as Israeli airstrikes killed at least 45 people on Sunday, hitting tents for displaced people in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, with reports that people were “burning alive.”

These attacks came two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to end its military offensive in Rafah, described by the UNRWA as “horrifying.”

According to Gaza’s health ministry, the death toll in Gaza has neared 36,000 people, with the vast majority being children and women.

Bahrain’s youth rep taps into Kennedy with speech to Arab youth at Dubai media forum

Updated 27 May 2024

Bahrain’s youth rep taps into Kennedy with speech to Arab youth at Dubai media forum

  • Youth ‘can craft a better future for us all,’ says Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa
  • Praises Gulf leaders ‘who are focused on the next generation rather than the next election’

DUBAI: Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s representative for humanitarian work and youth affairs, delivered a sharply defined message to Arab youth and their custodians.

In a speech at the Arab Media Summit, Al-Khalifa echoed the words of former US President John F. Kennedy, saying: “For a better world and a prosperous country, one must ask themselves what I can do for my country rather than what can my country do for me.

“The youth, which make up over 60 percent of our citizens today, is very different than previous generations. They have become the driving force behind certain industries and have taken to adopting certain causes that will craft a better future for us all.

“They are engaged in political and civil societies more than ever before throughout history. They have even managed to become successful in sectors such as journalism, social media in forms of content, podcasts and also showing sharp wit in investments and trade.”

Al-Khalifa, who served in a military academy, said he carries the academy’s message of “in order to serve, you must lead” throughout his life and policies.

 “While challenges can occur, as it did during the COVID pandemic, which affected not only economies but personal lives as well, it was a lesson to be learned. We came out of it, and we are at a better place now.

“Challenges are opportunities. Some folk lost a lot during the pandemic, while others progressed, and the difference between the two is that one seized the opportunity to create and further themselves. while others remained still.”

On the subject of open borders and one being a “global citizen,” Al-Khalifa urged the youth and their elders to continue to strive, travel, experience and learn, but to maintain a “moral direction that connects and centers you to who you are: an Arab.”

He added: “We are an Arab ummah, and what does that mean? It is a legacy, it is victories, accomplishments, values that we have carried and learned from our forefathers that we continue to build on today. To take on Western concepts such as ‘global citizen,’ one can be lost. Our identity is Arab first and foremost.

“Our religion, Islam, urged us to read, learn and engage. And that is what we do with other countries as we both compete and cooperate with them.

“Know who you are and where your roots lie. Some societies have become fragmented due to their abandonment of their values. Nowadays, we have Westerners who are enrolling their children in our schools to keep them centered and away from social and moral confusion.

“While it is valid and important to ride the new wave in terms of technology and progress of open borders to make our countries better, I urge fathers and mothers to continue to stress on an upbringing that focuses identity and positive moral values.

“We want to invest in our youth. It is important that they feel seen, valued, trusted and supported and wanted. If we do that, then their stock will never plummet. They are half of our present and all of our future.”

He concluded his speech by saying how blessed the Gulf is to have leaders “who are focused on the next generation rather than the next election,” and offered a prayer to the lives lost in Gaza.

Arab Media Forum opens in Dubai with focus on youth

Updated 27 May 2024

Arab Media Forum opens in Dubai with focus on youth

DUBAI: The annual Arab Media Forum launched in Dubai on Monday for a three-day summit involving media leaders and executives from across the region.

This year’s forum is geared toward youth, focusing on arming the next generation of journalists and media professionals with the tools and know-how to thrive in the ever-growing industry in the Arab world.

For the past two decades, the forum has brought together regional and international speakers to discuss the industry’s challenges and impact on Arab societies.

More than 1,000 creative and media students are expected to attend, along with prominent Arab personalities, content creators and global media industry leaders taking part in a range of panel discussions and master classes.

Notable speakers include Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, the king’s representative for humanitarian work and youth affairs in Bahrain; and Dr. Sultan Al-Neyadi, the UAE’s minister of state for youth affairs.

Monday’s schedule includes master classes on Meta, tools for storytelling, interactive media, as well as building personal brands.

Panels and discussions on the opening day cover sports media, the art of directing and redefining storytelling.

Tuesday and Wednesday will feature discussions on key political, economic and technological developments by media personalities, editors in chief, writers and experts from the region and around the world.

The forum will close with an awards ceremony recognizing content creators and journalists in a range of categories.

Over 300 million children a year face sexual abuse online: study

Updated 27 May 2024

Over 300 million children a year face sexual abuse online: study

  • One in eight of the world’s children have been victims of non-consensual taking, sharing and exposure to sexual images and video
  • Grim trend on the rise with US worst offender, University of Edinburgh’s researchers says

LONDON: More than 300 million children a year are victims of online sexual exploitation and abuse, according to the first global estimate of the scale of the problem published on Monday.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that one in eight of the world’s children have been victims of non-consensual taking, sharing and exposure to sexual images and video in the past 12 months.
That amounts to about 302 million young people, said the university’s Childlight Global Child Safety Institute, which carried out the study.
There have been a similar number of cases of solicitation, such as unwanted sexting and requests for sexual acts by adults and other youths, according to the report.
Offences range from so-called sextortion, where predators demand money from victims to keep images private, to the abuse of AI technology to create deepfake videos and pictures.
The problem is worldwide but the research suggests the United States is a particularly high-risk area, with one in nine men there admitting to online offending against children at some point.
“Child abuse material is so prevalent that files are on average reported to watchdog and policing organizations once every second,” said Childlight chief executive Paul Stanfield.
“This is a global health pandemic that has remained hidden for far too long. It occurs in every country, it’s growing exponentially, and it requires a global response,” he added.
The report comes after UK police warned last month about criminal gangs in West Africa and Southeast Asia targeting British teenagers in sextortion scams online.
Cases — particularly against teenage boys — are soaring worldwide, according to non-governmental organizations and police.
Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) issued an alert to hundreds of thousands of teachers telling them to be aware of the threat their pupils might face.
The scammers often pose as another young person, making contact on social media before moving to encrypted messaging apps and encouraging the victim to share intimate images.
They often make their blackmail demands within an hour of making contact and are motivated by extorting as much money as possible rather than sexual gratification, the NCA said.