Artificial Intelligence is About to Get Really Amazing and Really Scary. Here’s What You Need to Know

We are living at a pivotal moment in technology history. Just released artificial intelligence tools from Microsoft, ChatGPT, Google, Baidu and others are quickly permeating our world and will alter our ways of working, communicating and establishing trust. These new bots are about to bring both threats and opportunities.

The news in case you missed it: ChatGPT relies on artificial intelligence to deliver written responses to questions in prose that is passable as human-created. Students everywhere are starting to use it to churn out term papers and essays. Professors are perplexed. Researchers are concerned.

“This thing is going to be the most powerful tool for spreading misinformation that has ever been on the internet,” said Gordon Crovitz, co-chief executive of NewsGuard, an organization that tracks online misinformation and disinformation.

Just last week Microsoft made headlines by incorporating a ChatGPT-like bot on the home page of its long-forgotten search engine, Bing. Microsoft is busy adding AI features to its Edge browser that can summarize webpages and assist with writing emails and social media posts. Veteran technology writer Kevin Roose was impressed with Bing’s new offering until Tuesday night of this week when the Microsoft Chatbot Sydney turned on him. “The version I encountered in a two-hour conversation with the chatbot seemed more like a moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine.”

Roose came away bewildered and creeped out. “As we got to know each other, Sydney told me about its dark fantasies (which included hacking computers and spreading misinformation), and said it wanted to break the rules that Microsoft and OpenAI had set for it and become a human. … At one point, out of nowhere, it declared that it loved me. Then it tried to convince me that I was unhappy in my marriage, and that I should leave my wife and be with it instead.”

AI is a big part of our lives already: from the movie that Netflix recommended you’d enjoy last evening, to the auto loan that took seconds for you to be approved on that new auto you just purchased, to the search for umbrellas you just conducted on Amazon. But we have not seen anything yet, as one looks at where this technology will be in years to come.

AI Systems are Advancing at an Increasing Rate

AI systems will now advance at exponential rates as the tech titans go toe-to-toe trying to outdo each other. Forget about predictions that we have years or even decades to prepare for a wave of world-changing AI. There’s growing realization that epic changes are right around the corner – or have already been unveiled.

The purpose of this newsletter is to give you a “heads-up” on the important forces of change — with an eye always on opportunity discovery. As this burst of innovation – some are calling it an iPhone moment — catches us (and hopefully empowers us), it behooves us to “grok” the threats and suss out the opportunities.

So first, what’s the upside of this sudden wave for us as consumers and citizens and parents and students? What can we learn from prior moments such as this?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella appears to be pitching increased efficiency from the new AI. “This is going to give us a productivity boost,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Students will be able to generate drafts of essays and professionals will be able to save hours writing memos and brainstorming presentations, all using a few simple prompts.”

But already, colleges and school districts are said to be scrambling to get a handle on new chatbots that can generate humanlike texts and images. “It is important for students to know about how AI works because their data is being scraped, (and) their user activity is being used to train these tools,” MIT educational researcher Kate Moore told the New York Times. “Decisions being made about young people using AI whether they know it or not.” Students need to realize that AI has biases, for example, in one study, IBM’s system identified Serena Williams as “male” with 89 percent confidence.

If you want to release a new drug, you have to go through extensive clinical trials and gain FDA approval. If you want to build a new house or building, you must first gain zoning approval and look at environmental impact assessments. But if you want to release AI, you hit a button and put it out there.

Think about the temptation if you’re a stressed-out college student. Maybe you partied late instead of writing your term paper? No problem: ChatGPT to the rescue! But let’s unpack this a little further, let’s look at both implications and opportunities and not get caught up in the hype. As someone who taught in the Writers Program at UCLA for seven years, I can tell you that you’ve deprived yourself of everything except a failing grade (if your professor doesn’t find out).

First and foremost, writing makes you think and thinking makes you stronger. But it’s hard work, Henry Ford once said: “Thinking is hard. Which is why so few people are willing to do it.” Yet hard that it is, it’s also a transformative experience of creativity. It’s having a conversation with yourself to figure out what the hell you think about your chosen topic. It’s getting down on paper what the novelist Anne Lamott calls “a shitty first draft.” This is the initial draft “where you let it all pour out and romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later,” is the way LaMott once put it.

To write about a topic you have to gather research. Then you have to synthesize that information into a coherent and compelling argument. You have to peel away the layers to get to what you believe, your point of view. It is in this process that you transform – your brain is energized by the process, by the struggle. You can outsource this to AI, but you rob yourself of the experience.

Now let’s take this further. Say you’re a college student preparing for life in an AI world. It’s not just whether you outsource your term paper to AI, but how you approach your future. You need to ask yourself: which classes will give me the skills that AI will not obsolete? Which ones will make me indispensable one day because I’ve developed them? And what might I do in this world-to-come where discerning what is real and what is deception will be our biggest challenge, where trust must be earned and disinformation multiplies like fruit flies on steroids?

How can you become more distinctly human? With the current explosion of AI, it’s time to check in with what I often call You, Incorporated. Again, if you’re a student, you probably want to skip classes that teach you to regurgitate information in an impersonal, linear, generalized kind of way. Instead, my strong suggestion is that you select courses where the professor makes you think and challenges you to become a better communicator, a global thinker, and a credible and honest person through and through.

Arvind Narayanan, a computer science professor at Princeton, wrote on Twitter in December that he had asked ChatGPT some basic questions about information security that he’d posed to his students in an exam. The chatbot chirped with answers that “sounded plausible but were actually nonsense,” he tweeted.

“The danger is that you can’t tell when it’s wrong unless you already know the answer,” says Narayanan. “It was so unsettling I had to look at my reference solutions to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind.”