I’m not a fan of artificial intelligence. It’s not that I don’t see the positive impact of these technologies. I’ve worked on AI based projects at IBM that were designed to perform tedious bureaucratic work quickly. My concern is that we’re making very powerful yet easy-to-use tools to generate deceptive written and visual content (audio and video aren’t too far off) that is becoming more and more difficult to interpret as authentically created by a human. We’re on a path to destroy the Internet—and maybe worse—as we know it today. I’ve been feeling like an old man yelling at a cloud on this idea, and then I read The Expanding Dark Forest and Generative AI by Maggie Appleton.
The dark forest theory of the web points to the increasingly life-like but life-less state of being online.
Most open and publicly available spaces on the web are overrun with bots, advertisers, trolls, data scrapers, clickbait, keyword-stuffing “content creators,” and algorithmically manipulated junk.
To complicate matters, language models are not the only mimicry machines gathering speed right now. Image generators like Midjourney, DALL-E, and Stable Diffusion have been on a year-long sprint. In January they could barely render a low-resolution, disfigured human face. By the autumn they reliably produced images indistinguishable from the work of human photographers and illustrators.
There’s a swirl of optimism around how these models will save us from a suite of boring busywork: writing formal emails, internal memos, technical documentation, marketing copy, product announcement, advertisements, cover letters, and even negotiating with medical insurance companies.
But we’ll also need to reckon with the trade-offs of making insta-paragraphs and 1-click cover images. These new models are poised to flood the web with generic, generated content.
If this doesn’t unsettle you to the point of needing to shift in your chair—it should. And if that is the case then either you embrace and fan the flames of anarchy or you have not had to contend with friends and family members who are easily baited by convincing content created by trolls (human trolls ) on the internet. These AI tools are going to make it a thousand times worse.
And yet, despite all of the problems trolls have created for societies around the world in the past seven years, we are willingly and eagerly creating tools to generate even content that will look and feel even more convincing—Vast amounts of garbage content—by providing just a few instructions and a click of a button. No good can come from this.
Science fiction has traditionally portrayed artificial intelligence as an entity that becomes self-aware, determines mankind is a threat, and takes over military resources or builds a robot army to destroy humans. I think they got it wrong because all you need is for a robot to generate content that “sounds” human and broadcast it on the internet. We’ll end up killing each other without the AI having to launch or build a single thing. And there are many people in the technology industry pulling late shifts to make these tools even more powerful, easy to use, and easy to access. Today people are kicking the tires of AI to generate fictional works of art all in the name of fun or curiosity, but it won’t be long before someone uses these tools for evil. And the machines will be watching and learning.
The internet is already littered with so much crap—these tools will flood our digital spaces with useless, generated content. And as Maggie suggests, we are not prepared for this outcome.
Many people will say we already live in this reality. We’ve already become skilled at sifting through unhelpful piles of “optimised content” designed to gather clicks and advertising impressions.
4chan proposed dead internet theory years ago: that most of the internet is “empty and devoid of people” and has been taken over by artificial intelligence. A milder version of this theory is simply that we’re overrun with bots. Most of us take that for granted at this point.
But I think the sheer volume and scale of what’s coming will be meaningfully different. And I think we’re unprepared. Or at least, I am.
No, Maggie, you’re right. The world is so, so unprepared. Idiocracy, here we come!