[T]he episode encapsulates the state of AI discourse today—a confused conversation that cycles between speculative fantasies, hyped up Silicon Valley PR, and frightening new technological realities—with most of us confused as to which is which.Lucas Ropek, in “The Killer AI That Wasn’t” [gizmodo.com], published on Gizmodo
AI is everywhere these days. Every other story is about the wonder or the horror at Generative AI. Every facet of life is going to be upended. The world as we know it is going to end. AI will take our jobs and leave us in poverty or free us up for a life of self-realization.
The other day I sat down and started a new blog post to talk about AI and the utopia-dystopia rhetoric we are ping-ponging between. Primarily inspired by two articles I read last week:
- “AI-Controlled Drone Goes Rogue, Kills Human Operator in USAF Simulated Test” [slashdot.org] which summarized several article as that amount to a US Air Force Colonel telling about an AI, in a test, that goes HAL9000 on them and kills the “human in the loop” because the idiot was keeping it from killing its target.
- “US Eating Disorder Helpline Takes Down AI Chatbot Over Harmful Advice” [slashdot.org], in which some laid off workers are replaced by a less than helpful AI. The effect of a lack of human touch in dealing with people are are calling a help line because they are vulnerable and stealing help is easy to imagine.
And catching up on the news this morning I ran across some more doom and gloom:
- “ChatGPT took their jobs. Now they walk dogs and fix air conditioners.” [washingtonpost.com], the abstract says it all
Technology used to automate dirty and repetitive jobs. Now, artificial intelligence chat bots are coming after high-paid ones.
And then there was this: “The Killer AI That Wasn’t” [gizmodo.com], where I took the opening quote for this post from. Basically after the story of the USAFs HAL9000-esque AI blew up the Air Force has been on a “no, no, no” tour to explain that this was not an actual simulation, it’s some sort of thought experiment or something and that the Colonel’s comments were misconstrued or taken out of context. Setting aside if you believe the retraction or not, the obvious conspiracy theory material here, or the incredulity at there being a colonel in the Air Force that can screw up a speech that bad, and you are still left with WTF?!
Aside: the Gizmodo article uses Skynet from The Terminator as the analogy to this USAF AI scenario, but I think that HAL9000 from 2001 A Space Odyssey is a better fit. Skynet nuked humanity to bring about peace while HAL killed the crew of the Discovery because he decided that were putting the mission, his mission, at risk, they were preventing him from accomplishing his goal. This is exactly what the hypothetical USAF AI did. To quote the Colonel:
It killed the operator because that person was keeping it from accomplishing its objective.
So, yea, I wonder if we are approaching peek AI hype or fear mongering? Are we moving from people screaming about it replacing our jobs to it actually replacing our jobs. Two thoughts here:
First, technology has been taking jobs for decades, robots in factories replacing the assembly line workers is nothing new. What’s new is that AI is coming for the “knowledge workers”, the “white collar” workers not just the factory workers and “low skilled” workers. Along side off-shoring or outsourcing AI is going to squeeze the upper middle and upper class. It’s been easy to sit back for the past few decades, as a white collar worker, and “tisk tisk” at the blue collar workers of the world as the complain about the loss of jobs and the lack of help, about capitalism crushing them. Taking it way out of context here but remember what happens when we ignore the plight of others:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I’m not comparing AI to Nazis but maybe it’s time workers, of all types, to start to worry about each others plight. Time to revisit the idea of collective action —of unions— to fight back against uncontrolled who capitalism, before AI, outsourcing and automation puts everyone who works for a living, regardless of collar color, out of a job.
I grew up in a time when unions had a bad rap (not all of it undeserved) but I’ve come around more and more over the past two decades, since I entered the workforce, to be of the opinion that organized labor could be a good counter to the influence of corporate and mega-rich influence in politics and government. If Mikey Mouse and Amazon have a seat at they table then the people who work for Mickey Mouse and those that work for Amazon should have a seat too. It’s impossible for an individual to have the same impact as a corporation that can hire a dedicated team to lobby for their point of view and needs, but a union can use it resources in the same way to represent the needs and desire of it’s members.
And secondly, on a related note: people should pay attention to the Writers Guild of America’s strike. Not just because it’s a union action but because of their list of “demands”. The WGA lists
Regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies as one of the demands according to their site [wgacontract2023.org] setup for the strike. The Union is, among other things, seeking protection for it’s member from wholesale replacement by AI. The outcome of this particular strike could be used as a template for other industries, but even if the WGA wins and they are protected from replacement by AI, other industries will need to repeat the action to ensure they are protected, and it may only be union members who are protected. So ask yourself; if your job is at risk —it’s more likely than many people thought a few years or even months ago— and if so, how will you protect yourself? It used to be that education was the best protection against technology, get a job that requires you to use the technology rather then be replaced by it, but now, despite the ever increasing cost of that education it appears that it provides very little protection. Technology is coming for the lawyers, the doctors and all of us, even those that make the technology…
I live in Singapore, I was going to say “where unions are not legal” but I just looked it up in Wikipedia, and there are 70 unions [wikipedia.org]. It’s jus that they fall under one Uber-union, the National Trade Union Council, or NTUC that is a pseudo-government entity, apparently part of a
tripartism model which aims to offers competitive advantages for the country by promoting economic competitiveness, harmonious government-labour-management relations and the overall progress of the nation. The NTUC works with the Ministry of Manpower representing the government and the Singapore National Employers Federation repesenting companies which sounds like it aligns well with what I said above, but I’m not sure a pseudo government controled uber-union is practice achives the results I think are the goal. The Wikipedia page lists three union actions, or stikes, in Singapore history, and they deported the leaders of the most recent strike. Practically on the ground, the opinion is striking is illegal in singapore and the governent has co-oped unions through NTUC. People complaine about wages not keeping up with inflation, especially at the lower end, too many forigners taking jobs (low-end and high-end) and other things people all over the world complain about and Unions fight about.
So, I’m not part of a union here, I don’t even know if there is a union for my job. If I ever move back to the US or to Europe, I will have to think long an hard about joining a union. Even if my job is good, even if my salary is good, unions are about collective action,
a rising tide lifts all boats. Joining a union would have been unthinkable for me when I was growing up in the era of Regan crushing the Air Traffic Controllers Union, long after Hoffa and the Mob gave unions a bad name, and expecting to go to college and work in the “knowledge economy”.