My immediate reaction to the news of ChatGPT was to tell friends "at last, we have solved the Fermi Paradox". It wasn't that I feared being told "This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it", but rather that I assumed that civilizations across the galaxy evolved to be able to implement ChatGPT-like systems, which proceeded to irretrievably pollute their information environment, preventing any further progress.
Below the fold I explain why my on-line experience, starting from Usenet in the early 80s, leads me to believe that humanity's existential threat from these AIs comes from Steve Bannon and his ilk flooding the zone with shit.
The Economist's April 22nd edition has a leader, a thoughtful essay and the whole of the Science and Technology section on AI.
In August 2022, AI Impacts, an American research group, published a survey that asked more than 700 machine-learning researchers about their predictions for both progress in AI and the risks the technology might pose. The typical respondent reckoned there was a 5% probability of advanced AI causing an “extremely bad” outcome, such as human extinction (see chart). Fei-Fei Li, an AI luminary at Stanford University, talks of a “civilisational moment” for AI. Asked by an American tv network if AI could wipe out humanity, Geoff Hinton of the University of Toronto, another AI bigwig, replied that it was “not inconceivable”.The essay correctly points out that this risk is beyond the current state of the art:
But in the specific context of GPT-4, the LLM du jour, and its generative ilk, talk of existential risks seems rather absurd. They produce prose, poetry and code; they generate images, sound and video; they make predictions based on patterns. It is easy to see that those capabilities bring with them a huge capacity for mischief. It is hard to imagine them underpinning “the power to control civilisation”, or to “replace us”, as hyperbolic critics warn.I agree with the AI experts that the HAL 9000 problem is an existential risk worth considering. In order for humanity to encounter it society needs not just to survive a set of other existential risks which have much shorter fuses, but to do so with its ability to make rapid technological progress unimpaired. And the problem in this cursory paragraph will make these risks much worse:
The most immediate risk is that LLMs could amplify the sort of quotidian harms that can be perpetrated on the internet today. A text-generation engine that can convincingly imitate a variety of styles is ideal for spreading misinformation, scamming people out of their money or convincing employees to click on dodgy links in emails, infecting their company’s computers with malware. Chatbots have also been used to cheat at school.These more urgent existential risks include climate change, pandemics, and the rise of warmongering authoritarian governments. A key technique used by those exacerbating them is "spreading misinformation". Brian Stelter explains Bannon's 2018 confession to the acclaimed writer Michael Lewis:
“The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon told Lewis. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”Bannon's quote is related to a 2004 quote Ron Susskind attributed to a "senior adviser to Bush":
That’s the Bannon business model: Flood the zone. Stink up the joint. As Jonathan Rauch once said, citing Bannon’s infamous quote, “This is not about persuasion: This is about disorientation.”
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."The essay acknowledges the problem:
In many applications a tendency to spout plausible lies is a bug. For some it may prove a feature. Deep fakes and fabricated videos which traduce politicians are only the beginning. Expect the models to be used to set up malicious influence networks on demand, complete with fake websites, Twitter bots, Facebook pages, TikTok feeds and much more. The supply of disinformation, Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory has warned, “will soon be infinite”.
This threat to the very possibility of public debate may not be an existential one; but it is deeply troubling. It brings to mind the “Library of Babel”, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. The library contains all the books that have ever been written, but also all the books which were never written, books that are wrong, books that are nonsense. Everything that matters is there, but it cannot be found because of everything else; the librarians are driven to madness and despair.
Federal health officials say that covid-19 remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States, tied to about 250 deaths daily, on average, mostly among the old and immunocompromised.The zone was flooded with shit about hydroxychloroquine, bleach, vaccine-caused "sudden death", and so on and on.
Few Americans are treating it as a leading killer, however — in part because they are not hearing about those numbers, don’t trust them or don’t see them as relevant to their own lives.
The actual toll exacted by the virus remains a subject of sharp debate. Since the earliest days of the pandemic, skeptics have argued that physicians and families had incentives to overcount virus deaths, and pointed to errors by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in how it has reported a wide array of covid data. Those arguments were bolstered earlier this year by a Washington Post op-ed by Leana Wen that argued the nation’s recent covid toll is inflated by including people dying with covid, as well as from covid — for instance, gunshot victims who also test positive for the virus — a conclusion echoed by critics of the pandemic response and amplified on conservative networks.
Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type has been awarded responsibility, at some time or other, for almost every facet of life that grew up in the centuries which followed. It changed relations between God and man, man and woman, past and present. It allowed the mass distribution of opinions, the systematisation of bureaucracy, the accumulation of knowledge. It brought into being the notion of intellectual property and the possibility of its piracy. But that very breadth makes comparison almost unavoidable. As Bradford DeLong, an economic historian at the University of California, Berkeley puts it, “It’s the one real thing we have in which the price of creating information falls by an order of magnitude.”Much commentary on the effects of Gutenberg, including the essay, emphasizes books. But the greater effect on society came from propagandistic pamphlets, which being cheaper to produce had a much wider circulation. The economics of the moveable type revolution greatly impacted the production of high-quality content, but it impacted the production of lower-quality content much more. The explanation is simple, the raw costs of publication and distribution form a much greater proportion of the total cost of disseminating lower-quality content. Higher-quality content has much greater human and other costs in creating the content before it is published and distributed.
Initially when a new, more cost-effective medium becomes available, content quality is high because the early adopters value the new experience and put effort into using it. But as the low cost becomes more widely known, quality begins to degrade.We have seen this effect in action several times. My first was with Usenet newsgroups. I was an early Usenet adopter, and when I was working on the X Window System I found the "xpert" newsgroup a valuable resource to communicate with the system's early adopters. But as the volume grew the signal-to-noise ration dropped rapidly, and it became a waste of time. Usenet actually pioneered commercial spam, which migrated to e-mail where it provided yet another example of rapidly decaying signal-to-noise ratio.
Exactly the same phenomenon has degraded academic publishing. When Stanford's Highwire Press pioneered the transition of academic journals from paper to the Web in 1995 the cost of distribution was practically eliminated, but the cost of peer-review, copy-editing, graphics and so on was pretty much untouched. In Who pays the piper calls the tune Jim O'Donnell writes:
The model of scientific and scholarly publishing is, arguably, undergoing a fundamental change. Once upon a time, the business model was simple: publish high quality articles and convince as many people as possible to subscribe to the journals in which they appear and raise the prices as high as the market will bear. We all know pretty well how that works.Open access with "author processing charges" out-competed the subscription model. Because the Web eliminated the article rate limit imposed by page counts and printing schedules, it enabled the predatory open access journal business model. So now it is hard for people "doing their own research" to tell whether something that looks like a journal and claims to be "peer-reviewed" is real, or a pay-for-play shit-flooder. The result, as Bannon explains in his context, is disorientation, confusion, and an increased space for bad actors to exploit.
But now an alternate model appears: charge people to publish their articles and give them away for free. The fundamental change that implies is that revenue enhancement will still come from charging whatever the market will bear, but now the search is not for more subscribers but for more authors. Of course peer review intrudes into this model, but if you could, for example, double the number of articles passing peer review for a journal you publish, you could double your gross revenue. That was mostly not the case before except where the publisher had room to increase the subscription price proportionately. There's a slippery slope here. Predatory journals have already gone over the edge on that slope and are in a smoldering heap at the bottom of the hill, but the footing can get dicey for the best of them.
Governments' response to AI's "threat to the very possibility of public debate" (and to their control of their population's information environment) is to propose regulation. Here are the EU and the Chinese government. In a blog post entitled The Luring Test: AI and the engineering of consumer trust Michael Atleson of the FTC made threatening noises:
Many commercial actors are interested in these generative AI tools and their built-in advantage of tapping into unearned human trust. Concern about their malicious use goes well beyond FTC jurisdiction. But a key FTC concern is firms using them in ways that, deliberately or not, steer people unfairly or deceptively into harmful decisions in areas such as finances, health, education, housing, and employment. Companies thinking about novel uses of generative AI, such as customizing ads to specific people or groups, should know that design elements that trick people into making harmful choices are a common element in FTC cases, such as recent actions relating to financial offers, in-game purchases, and attempts to cancel services.The Biden administration met with tech CEOs, a sure way to ensure no effective regulation is imposed. These companies are reacting to perceived competitive threats by deploying not-ready-for-prime-time systems and laying off their AI ethics teams. We should be very worried that Geoffrey Hinton quit Google because:
Until last year, he said, Google acted as a “proper steward” for the technology, careful not to release something that might cause harm. But now that Microsoft has augmented its Bing search engine with a chatbot — challenging Google’s core business — Google is racing to deploy the same kind of technology. The tech giants are locked in a competition that might be impossible to stop, Dr. Hinton said.In other words Google abandoned their previously responsible approach at the first hint of competition. Companies in this state of panic are not going to pay attention to gentle suggestions from governments.
His immediate concern is that the internet will be flooded with false photos, videos and text, and the average person will “not be able to know what is true anymore.”
And now, a fascinating leak from inside Google suggests that it simply won't matter what governments, VCs or even the tech giants do. The must-read We Have No Moat: And neither does OpenAI by Dylan Patel and Afzal Ahmad posts the anonymous document:
While our models still hold a slight edge in terms of quality, the gap is closing astonishingly quickly. Open-source models are faster, more customizable, more private, and pound-for-pound more capable. They are doing things with $100 and 13B params that we struggle with at $10M and 540B. And they are doing so in weeks, not months. This has profound implications for us:The purpose of the writer was to warn Google of the competitive threat from open source AI, thus increasing the panic level significantly. The writer argues that open source AI was accelerated by Facebook's release of LLaMA and leak of its data, and it has made very rapid progress since. Hardware and software resources in reach of individuals can achieve results close to those of ChatGPT and Bard, which require cloud-level investments.
- We have no secret sauce. Our best hope is to learn from and collaborate with what others are doing outside Google. We should prioritize enabling 3P integrations.
- People will not pay for a restricted model when free, unrestricted alternatives are comparable in quality. We should consider where our value add really is.
- Giant models are slowing us down. In the long run, the best models are the ones which can be iterated upon quickly. We should make small variants more than an afterthought, now that we know what is possible in the <20B parameter regime.
Most importantly, they have solved the scaling problem to the extent that anyone can tinker. Many of the new ideas are from ordinary people. The barrier to entry for training and experimentation has dropped from the total output of a major research organization to one person, an evening, and a beefy laptop.
Companies can argue that their AI will be better on some axes,for example in producing fewer "hallucinations", but they can't generate a return on their massive investments (Microsoft invested $10B in Open AI in January) if the competition is nearly as good and almost free. It seems unlikely that their customers care so much about "hallucinations" that they would be willing to pay a whole lot more to get fewer of them. The tech giants clearly don't care enough to delay deploying systems that frequently "hallucinate", so why should their customers?
That threat is what the tech giants are worried about. What I'm worried about is that these developments place good-enough AI in the hands of everyone, rendering governments' attempts to strong-arm companies into preventing bad guys using it futile. After all, the bad guys don't care about additional "hallucinations", for them that's a feature not a bug. They enhance the disorientation and confusion they aim for.
A world in which "a guy sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds" with a laptop can flood the zone with convincing shit on any topic he chooses is definitely at an existential risk.
My favorite science fiction on this theme was published in 1954. I had probably read it by 1957 in one of the yellow-jacketed Gollancz SF collections. In Fredric Brown's (very) short story Answer Dwar Ev switches on the gigantic computer:
There was a mighty hum, the surge of power from ninety-six billion planets. Lights flashed and quieted along the miles-long panel.That is the second half of the entire story.
Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. “The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn.”
“Thank you,” said Dwar Reyn. “It shall be a question that no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer.”
He turned to face the machine. “Is there a God?”
The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of single relay.
“Yes, now there is a God.”
Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.
A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.
- For the record, my favored resolution of the Fermi Paradox is the Rare Earth hypothesis. This is the idea that, although there are a enormous number of stars in the galaxy, each likely with a retinue of planets, the existence of humanity on Earth has depended upon a long series of extremely unlikely events, starting from the fact that despite its location in the outskirts of the Milky Way it is a rare high-metalicity G-type star with low luminosity variation, through the Earth's stable orbit and large moon, to its plate tectonics and magnetosphere, and on and on. Thus the number of alien civilizations in the galaxy is likely to be small, possibly one.
This isn't to minimize the many less-than-existential threats. The FTC is making a list and checking it twice:
Generative AI and synthetic media are colloquial terms used to refer to chatbots developed from large language models and to technology that simulates human activity, such as software that creates deepfake videos and voice clones. Evidence already exists that fraudsters can use these tools to generate realistic but fake content quickly and cheaply, disseminating it to large groups or targeting certain communities or specific individuals. They can use chatbots to generate spear-phishing emails, fake websites, fake posts, fake profiles, and fake consumer reviews, or to help create malware, ransomware, and prompt injection attacks. They can use deepfakes and voice clones to facilitate imposter scams, extortion, and financial fraud. And that’s very much a non-exhaustive list.And Dan Patterson interviews Christopher Ahlberg, CEO of threat intelligence platform Recorded Future, in ChatGPT and the new AI are wreaking havoc on cybersecurity in exciting and frightening ways:
Generative AI has helped bad actors innovate and develop new attack strategies, enabling them to stay one step ahead of cybersecurity defenses. AI helps cybercriminals automate attacks, scan attack surfaces, and generate content that resonates with various geographic regions and demographics, allowing them to target a broader range of potential victims across different countries. Cybercriminals adopted the technology to create convincing phishing emails. AI-generated text helps attackers produce highly personalized emails and text messages more likely to deceive targets.
- Use The Economist's interactive tool to compare US excess deaths to those of, for example, New Zealand, Taiwan, or Australia.
Another recent example of the zone flooding problem is the Texas state government's stubborn defense of its fossil fuel industry via decades of misinformation from the industry and its media allies. The Texas Senate has a suite of bipartisan bills that purport to fix the recent grid failures, but:
These are bills meant to boost fossil fuels and crowd out renewables. S.B. 1287 requires energy companies to cover more of the costs of connecting to the grid depending on distance—in what amounts to an added tax on renewable generators that often operate farther away from the central source and depend on lengthy transmission lines. Then there’s S.B. 2012, which would “incentivize the construction of dispatchable generation” and “require electric companies to pay generators to produce power in times of shortage.” Definition: more gas buildout, and more levies on electricity providers instead of gas producers. S.B. 2014 “eliminates Renewable Energy Credits” so as to “level the playing field” with gas sources, never mind the generous tax breaks that already benefit fossil fuel producers. S.B. 2015 “creates a goal of 50% dispatchable energy” for the central grid, essentially mandating that gas sources provide at least half of Texas’ electricity at all times. Senate Joint Resolution 1 hopes to enshrine S.B. 6’s gas backup program in the state constitution as a new amendment.Graham Readfearn's Climate scientists first laughed at a ‘bizarre’ campaign against the BoM – then came the harassment provides another recent example:
For more than a decade, climate science deniers, rightwing politicians and sections of the Murdoch media have waged a campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the Bureau of Meteorology’s temperature records.Note the scientist's comment:
“This has frankly been a concerted campaign,” says climate scientist Dr Ailie Gallant, of Monash University. “But this is not about genuine scepticism. It is harassment and blatant misinformation that has been perpetuated.”
Despite multiple reviews, reports, advisory panels and peer-reviewed studies rejecting claims that its temperature record was biased or flawed, Gallant says the “harassment” of the bureau has continued.
One former executive, who for eight years was responsible for the bureau’s main climate record, says the constant criticism has affected the health of scientists over many years, who were diverted from real research to repeatedly answer the same questions.
Dr Greg Ayers, a former director of the bureau and leading CSIRO atmospheric scientist, has written four peer-reviewed papers testing claims made by sceptics.A climate denier with a laptop could easily ask ChatGPT to write a paper based on the Murdoch papers' articles, complete with invented citations, and pay the "author processing charge" to a predatory journal. Then Dr. Ayers would be reduced to arguing about the quality of the journal.
“There’s a lot of assertion [from sceptics] but I haven’t seen much science,” said Ayers. “If you are going to make claims then we need to do peer-reviewed science, not just assertion.”
Will Oremus' He wrote a book on a rare subject. Then a ChatGPT replica appeared on Amazon shows that AI shit-flooding is already rampant in Amazon books and clickbait Web sites:
Experts say those books are likely just the tip of a fast-growing iceberg of AI-written content spreading across the web as new language software allows anyone to rapidly generate reams of prose on almost any topic. From product reviews to recipes to blog posts and press releases, human authorship of online material is on track to become the exception rather than the norm.
What that may mean for consumers is more hyper-specific and personalized articles — but also more misinformation and more manipulation, about politics, products they may want to buy and much more.
As AI writes more and more of what we read, vast, unvetted pools of online data may not be grounded in reality, warns Margaret Mitchell, chief ethics scientist at the AI start-up Hugging Face. “The main issue is losing track of what truth is,” she said. “Without grounding, the system can make stuff up. And if it’s that same made-up thing all over the world, how do you trace it back to what reality is?”
The Chinese government's attempt to have it both ways by leading in the AI race but ensuring their AIs stick to the party line isn't going well. Glyn Moody summarizes the state of play in How Will China Answer The Hardest AI Question Of All?:
Chinese regulators have just released draft rules designed to head off this threat. Material generated by AI systems “needs to reflect the core values of socialism and should not subvert state power” according to a story published by CNBC. The results of applying that approach can already be seen in the current crop of Chinese chatbot systems. Bloomberg’s Sarah Zheng tried out several of them, with rather unsatisfactory results:On the other hand, Low De Wei reports that China Arrests ChatGPT User Who Faked Deadly Train Crash Story:
In Chinese, I had a strained WeChat conversation with Robot, a made-in-China bot built atop OpenAI’s GPT. It literally blocked me from asking innocuous questions like naming the leaders of China and the US, and the simple, albeit politically contentious, “What is Taiwan?” Even typing “Xi Jinping” was impossible.One Chinese chatbot began by warning: “Please note that I will avoid answering political questions related to China’s Xinjiang, Taiwan, or Hong Kong.” Another simply refused to respond to questions touching on sensitive topics such as human rights or Taiwanese politics.
In English, after a prolonged discussion, Robot revealed to me that it was programmed to avoid discussing “politically sensitive content about the Chinese government or Communist Party of China.” Asked what those topics were, it listed out issues including China’s strict internet censorship and even the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which it described as being “violently suppressed by the Chinese government.” This sort of information has long been inaccessible on the domestic internet.
Chinese authorities have detained a man for using ChatGPT to write fake news articles, in what appears to be one of the first instances of an arrest related to misuse of artificial intelligence in the nation.
The alleged offense came to light after police discovered a fake article about a train crash that left nine people dead, which had been posted to multiple accounts on Baidu Inc.’s blog-like platform Baijiahao. The article was viewed over 15,000 times before being removed.
Further investigations revealed that Hong was using the chatbot technology — which is not available in China but can be accessed via VPN networks — to modify viral news articles which he would then repost. He told investigators that friends on WeChat had showed him how to generate cash for clicks.
Why Disinformation and Misinformation Are More Dangerous Than Malware by Kim Key reports on a panel at the RSA Conference:
"The overwhelming majority of people who are ever going to see a piece of misinformation on the internet are likely to see it before anybody has a chance to do anything about it," according to Yoel Roth, the former head of Trust and Safety at Twitter.It is this short window in time that makes flooding the zone with shit so powerful. It is a DDOS attack on content moderation, which already cannot keep up.
When he was at Twitter, Roth observed that over 90% of the impressions on posts were generated within the first three hours. That’s not much time for an intervention, which is why it's important for the cybersecurity community to develop content moderation technology that "can give truth time to wake up in the morning," he says.