In a couple of generations, we went from fearing an Orwellian future of state surveillance to actively inviting surveillance capitalism in our lives. In that same couple of generations, we went from an almost irrational fear of totalitarian “single party government” to widespread acceptance of a single party state in the form of “The Free Market”. And in spite of the fact that – in science fiction – so-called artificial intelligence usually leads to dystopia, we now appear to be voluntarily training the AIs so that they can replace us.
As the old joke in The Simpsons goes, I for one welcome our new insect overlords.
When I get into my car on a Friday afternoon and plug my phone into my car, it offers to give me directions to Tesco, because I frequently drop in there on the way home on a Friday. (I use sat nav most of the time, not because I don’t know the way home, but because it can give me advance warning of delays – usually caused by the High Speed 2 works.) And when I do the same thing on a Saturday morning, it offers to give me directions to Sainsbury’s, because it “knows” that that’s my usual destination. As I said, we’ve actively invited surveillance capitalism into our lives. Is it too late to stop now? I look at my phone sometimes and I wonder… the truth is I have completely replaced radio with podcasts, and I really couldn’t live without those. On the other hand, I look at the app store sometimes, and I also wonder whether there’s really anything useful to come from that direction. I mean, I’ve tried a variety of “productivity” apps over the years, but always end up thinking that almost everything is easier to do on my, you know, laptop. Like writing this blog. I could use an app to compose on my phone, but why on earth would I bother?
Which brings me to this morning, and the rather disturbing existence of so-called AI-generated music. Nobody gives a shit about my opinion, but my top tip for avoiding an even more dystopian future would be to stop training the fucking AIs. Of course, they’re not (yet) proper AIs: they’re a form of machine learning on a journey towards artificial intelligence. But the more people train them, the better they will get: at replacing journalists, novelists, screenwriters, editors, artists, graphic designers, teachers. Of course, there’s no group of people I’d like to see put out of work more than the hedge fund managers, but the AIs will not discriminate: they’ll come for all of us. And the single party state of the free market economy will see nothing but upsides to reducing overheads like salaries, pensions, and health insurance.
We’ll be like the bees in Bee Movie, overhearing the AIs saying, “It’s almost pure profit!”
So I think journalists should stop writing about AIs, tech people should stop “just trying” things, teachers should definitely stop using them to plan lessons, or create quizzes, or offering dumb suggestions to colleagues about how to do these things, and people should generally stop feeding them data.
What triggered this blog: someone posted a YouTube video featuring Paul McCartney song, which replaced the original “old Paul” vocal with an AI-generated “young Paul” vocal. And it was convincing enough that it would fool a lot of people. It doesn’t pretend to be real (not yet), but it sounded almost as if it might be real. There were a couple of moments where the voice slid between notes in a kind of autotuny way, and there probably wasn’t enough human variation in intonation, but it was enough to give you an eerie feeling.
It’s the uncanny valley: close enough to seeming real that it gives you the proper creeps. I think most Beatles/McCartney fans would greet it with mixed feelings. On the one hand, whenever you hear old Paul singing, you wish he could still sing like young Paul. On the other hand, when you get what you want, you suddenly feel unclean. As I said to a friend, you feel like someone who sold their soul in order to get their heart’s desire, but now you regret the damnation.
But it’s too late. Like, is it too late to think you might live without a smartphone in your pocket? Is it too late to turn back the artificial intelligence tide and save ourselves from ourselves? I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep, which is a brilliant imagining of a new Dark Ages wrought by a complete collapse of technological civilisation. What would cause such a collapse? Cyber warfare, solar flares, bad actors… add out of control AIs to that list.
We begin to seem like those hapless people in the movie Independence Day, you know the ones: the ones with the sign saying “Take us with you!” to the aliens who are about to kill them all.