A fifth horseman comes riding in, again

If you’re following breaking news about Artificial Intelligence (AI), you might think technology has just joined conquest, war, famine, and death as the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. Truth is people have feared apocalyptic technological change since the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press around 1436.

Suddenly, books and pamphlets could be mass produced and widely read.  Church leaders and royals feared the world would never be the same again. They were right. In the early 1500s, Martin Luther became the leader of a group of pamphleteers who challenged the tenets and authority of the Catholic Church. The pamphlets, printed on a Gutenberg press, were read by thousands of people in the emerging middle class, and the Protestant Reformation was born.

Three centuries later, during the Industrial Revolution, a secret group of textile workers (the Luddites) destroyed the manufacturing equipment they worked on – in a hopeless attempt to protect traditional weavers and an agrarian way of life.

And on it went – big technological adaptations often yielded significant cultural change.

Now, AI is changing the world forever.  ChatGPT can write a college student’s essay in response to a simple Google-style query. (The more information you feed the app, the more accurate its feedback should become.) AI has also been used to generate images of Vladimir Putin behind bars, and of Donald Trump being arrested by a mob of police officers.

So, yes, AI can and is being used to generate fake news, beat anyone at chess, and write programs it decides to generate on its own.  It also works wonders, especially in the early and accurate diagnoses of disease. Still, as some leading AI researchers have suggested, it may be wise to better understand (and perhaps regulate) this beast before it owns us.

Up in the CrowsNest, we’re not quite ready to call AI the fifth dark horseman. When one of us asked ChatGPT to create his own biography, the app said this fellow had (among other things) won a Michener prize for public service. That’s an agreeable fiction, and our CrowsNest colleague might have taken on the identity of his digital avatar, except for the fact that the guy described in the ChatGPT bio was long dead. And Michener awards just don’t have the same cachet after you’ve gone to your final, pre-apocalyptic resting place.