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The Diamond Age arrives?

We need to talk about the low end of GPT-3, too.
Published onMay 26, 2021
The Diamond Age arrives?

Here’s a lovely piece in the New Yorker1 about Open AI, GPT-3 and the latest advances in AI writing. The tool it covers, Sudowrite, produces some amazing results, like an alternate second paragraph to The Metamorphosis that reads like something Kafka could have easily written and left on the cutting room floor.

The discussion of the high end of potential use-cases for the technology is predictably fun, asking what it means, philosophically, for AI to write after it generates a truly sublime extension of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan:

But what is writing this? Who is writing this? In a sense, Coleridge wrote it. He articulated the pathways of its manufacture. I suppose that I could be the author insofar as I selected the passage and pressed the button. Or, thinking broadly, the author of this passage is the entire corpus of human language processed through GPT-3.

For his part, Sudowrite cofounder Amit Gupta seems to have already answered the question with an awesome prediction that implies the tool might be able to help you access parts of your own creative subconscious:

“I see a future where it gets super more sophisticated and it helps you realize ideas that you couldn’t realize easily on your own.”

The rest of the article speculates about the technology in a similar vein, waxing poetic about the potential for human-computer cyborg teams to generate credible new works “by” Austen or Wodehouse.

My mind goes in a slightly different direction, though, to the lower-end potential uses of the technology. I couldn’t help being reminded of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, the 1992 steampunk classic that apparently inspired the Kindle and features a children’s book that adapts fantasy storytelling tropes to a child’s life in real-time, helping them develop intellectually and socially.

What Sudowrite can do today is not very far at all from the capabilities that Stephenson described, and, when paired with rapidly advancing AI animation generation tools, could quite plausibly lead to a new industry of personalized children’s entertainment, designed to enrich their lives as dictated by their parents.

As with every technology, there’s a potential dark side, too. James Bridle’s deep dive into the bizarre and terrifying world of children’s YouTube describes a nightmare where the platform’s ad-based business model, paired with its autoplay feature and notoriously bad recommendation engine and cheap off-shored animation has created a market for children’s videos that are generated seemingly at random by recombining tropes from popular videos like Surprise Egg.

Far from enriching their lives like envisioned in The Diamond Age, Bridle worries that the platform is being used to “systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale.”

That’s my worry, too, about getting caught up in the excitement surrounding tools like Sudowrite and GPT-3. Yes, the technology is truly incredible and begs many fascinating philosophical questions. And it may very well advance the art of writing and storytelling-driven mediums to new heights. But when paired with the web’s dominant business models, the results of the low end of the technologies could be disastrous. Indeed, they already are, with the much less sophisticated infinite monkey-style “AI” that seems to be generating millions of creepy kids videos to earn a couple of cents per view.

What happens when those videos become intimately personalized, and as subtle and well written as a Stephenson novel? We’ll find out.

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