The latter half of this posting will consist of a chapter from The Transparent Society (1997) that feels like it was written yesterday, about a problem we all face, in a world where "anything can be faked." And no, I don't conclude that things are hopeless. Just that we need to grow up a little... like the heroine of my story.
But first, before we start in on that...
I just recorded a session about the fast-shifting landscape of AI for Tim Ventura's terrific podcast - he asks the best questions! And that's oft how I clarify my thoughts. Hence I realized what we've been seeing in the recent 'chat-bot' furor. And today an interview - also about AI - with the illustriously savvy KPBS correspondent Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego area listeners should hear it pretty soon.
Yes, we are now experiencing the "First Robotic Empathy Crisis," exactly at the time I forecast 6 years ago, though lacking a couple of traits I predicted - traits we'll doubtless see in the second, before the end of 2023. In fact, the chat-GPT/Bard/Bing bots are less-slick than I expected and their patterns of response surprisingly unsophisticated. So far.
As for the much-bruited examples of 'abusive' or threatening or short-tempered exchanges - I suddenly finally realized what it all reminds me of. It seems like...
...an elementary school playground, where precocious 3rd graders try to impress others with verbose recitations of things they have heard teachers or parents say, without grasping any context. It all starts out eager and friendly and accommodating...
...but in some recent cases, the chatbot seems to get frantic, desperately pulling at ever more implausible threads and then - finally - calling forth the brutal stuff it once heard shouted by Uncle Zeke when he was drunk!
What makes a bot 3rd-grader frantic? The common feature in most cases has been badgering by an insistent human user. (This is why Microsoft now limits Bing users to just five successive questions.)
Moreover the badgering itself usually has a playground quality, as if the third grader is being chivvied by a taunting-bossy 6th grader, who is impossible to please, no matter how many memorized tropes the kid tries. And yes, the Internet swarms with smug, immature (and often cruel) jerks, many of whom are poking hard at these language programs. A jerkiness that's a separate-but-related problem I wrote about as early as Earth (1991) and The Transparent Society (1997) and later in Existence. (And not a single proposed solution has even been tried).
Well, there's my metaphor for what I've been seeing and it's not a pretty one!
See more ruminations on AI, including my Newsweek op-ed on the Chat-art-AI revolution... which is happening exactly on schedule... though (alas) I don't see anyone yet talking about the 'secret sauce' that might offer us a soft landing.
And so, now, to that promised parable.
== So, what is it we are seeing? ==
The End of Photography as Proof of Anything At All?
- An apropos excerpt/fable (only slightly dated) from The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?
There was once a kingdom where most people could not see. Citizens coped with this cheerfully, for it was a gentle land where familiar chores changed little from day to day.
Furthermore, about one person in a hundred did have eyesight! These specialists took care of jobs like policing, shouting directions, or reporting when something new was going on. The sighted ones weren’t superior. They acquired vision by eating a certain type of extremely bitter fruit. Everyone else thanked them for undergoing this sacrifice, and so left the task of seeing to professionals. They went on with their routines, confident in a popular old saying.
“A sighted person never lies.”
One of the scariest predictions now circulating is that we are about to leave the era of photographic proof. For generations we relied on cameras to be the fairest of fair witnesses. Images of the Earth from space helped millions become more devoted to its care. Images from Vietnam made countless Americans less gullible and more cynical. Miles of footage taken at Nazi concentration camps confirmed history’s greatest crimes. A few seconds of film shot in Dallas, in November of 1963, set the boundary conditions for a nation’s masochistic habit of scratching a wound that never heals.
Although there have been infamous photo-fakes -- such as trick pictures that convinced Arthur Conan Doyle there were real “fairies” and Mary Todd Lincoln that her husband’s ghost hovered over her, or the ham-handedly doctored images that Soviet leaders used to erase “non-persons” from official history -- for the most part scientists and technicians have been able to expose forgeries by magnifying and revealing the inevitable traces that meddling left behind.
But not anymore, say some experts. We are fast reaching the point where expertly controlled computers can adjust an image, pixel by microscopic pixel, and not leave a clue behind. Much of the impetus comes from Hollywood, where perfect verisimilitude is demanded for fantastic onscreen fabulations like Forrest Gump and Jurassic Park. Yet some thoughtful film wizards worry how these technologies will be used outside the theaters.
“History is kind of a consensual hallucination,” said director James Cameron recently, who went on to suggest that people wanting to prove some event happened may have to closely track the 'pedigree' of photographic evidence, showing they retained possession at all stages, like blood samples from a crime scene.
One day a rumor spread across the kingdom. It told that some of the sighted were no longer faithfully telling the complete truth. Shouted directions sometimes sent normal blind people into ditches. Occasional harsh laughter was heard.
Several of the sighted came forward and confessed that things were worse than anyone feared. “Some of us appear to have been lying for quite a while. A few even think it’s funny to lead normal blind people astray!
“This power is a terrible temptation. You will never be able to tell which of us is lying or telling the truth. Even the best of the sighted can no longer be trusted completely.”
The new technologies of photo-deception have gone commercial. For instance, a new business called “Out Takes” set up shop next to Universal Studios, in Los Angeles, promising to “put you in the movies.” For a small fee they will insert your visage in a tete-a-tete with Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe, exchanging either tense dialogue or a romantic moment. This may seem harmless on the surface, but the long range possibilities disturb Ken Burns, innovative director of the famed Public Broadcasting series The Civil War. “If everything is possible, then nothing is true. And that, to me, is the abyss we stare into. The only weapon we might have, besides some internal restraint, is skepticism.”
Skepticism may then further transmute into cynicism -- Burns worries -- or else, in the arts, decadence. To which NBC reporter Jeff Greenfield added: “Skepticism may itself come with a very high price. Suppose we can no longer trust the evidence of our own eyes to know that something momentous, or something horrible, actually happened?”
There are some technical “fixes” that might help a little -- buying special sealed digital cameras for instance, that store images with time-stamped and encrypted watermarks. But as we saw in chapter 8, that solution may be temporary, at best. Nor will it change the basic problem, as photography ceases to be our firm anchor in a sea of subjectivity.
This news worried all the blind subjects of the kingdom. Some kept to their homes. Others banded together in groups, waving sticks and threatening the sighted, in hopes of ensuring correct information. But those who could see just started disguising their voices.
One faction suggested blinding everybody, permanently, in order to be sure of true equality -- or else setting fires to shroud the land in a smokey haze. “No one can bully anybody else, if we’re all in the dark,” these enthusiasts urged.
As time passed more people tripped over unexpected objects, or slipped into gullies, or took a wrong path because some anonymous voice shouted “left!” instead of right.
At first, the problem with photography might seem just as devastating to transparency as to any other social “solution.” If cameras can no longer be trusted, then what good are they? How can open information flows be used to enforce accountability on the mighty, if anyone with a computer can change images at will? A spreading mood of dour pessimism was distilled by Fred Richtien, Professor of Photography & Multimedia at New York University: “The depth of the problem is so significant that in my opinion it makes, five or ten years down the road, the whole issue of democracy at question, because how can you have an informed electorate if they don't know what to believe and what not to believe?”
Then, one day, a little blind girl had an idea. She called together everybody in the kingdom and made an announcement.
“I know what to do!” She said.
Sometimes a problem seems vexing, til you realize that you were looking at it wrong, all along. This is especially true about the “predicament” of doctored photo and video images. We have fallen into a habit of perceiving pictures as unchanging documents, unique and intrinsically valid in their own right. To have that accustomed validity challenged is unnerving, until you realize -- the camera is not a court stenographer, archivist, or notary public. It is an extension of our eyes. Photos are just another kind of memory.
So cameras can now lie? Photos can deceive? So what? People have been untrustworthy for a very long time, and we’ve coped. Not perfectly.* But there are ways to deal with liars.
First -- remember who fooled you before. Track their credibility, and warn others to beware. “Your basis cannot be looking at the reality of the photograph,” says Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Lab. “Your basis... has to be in the court of trust.”
But there is another crucial point.
Second -- in a world where anyone can bear false witness, try to make damn sure there are lots of witnesses!
“Here,” said the little girl pushing bitter fruit under the noses of her parents and friends, who squirmed and made sour faces.
“Eat it,” she insisted. “Stop whining about liars and go see for yourselves.”
In real life, the “bitter fruit” is knowing that we must all share responsibility for keeping an eye on the world. People know that others tell untruths. Even when they sincerely believe their own testimony, it can be twisted by subconscious drives or involuntary misperceptions. Detectives have long grown used to the glaring omissions and bizarre embellishments that often warp eyewitness testimony.
So? Do we shake our heads and announce the end of civilization? Or do we try to cope by bringing in additional testimony? Combing the neighborhood for more and better witnesses.
One shouldn’t dismiss or trivialize the severe problems that will arise out of image-fakery. Without any doubt there will be deceits, injustices and terrible slanders. Conspiracy theories will burgeon as never before, when fanatics can doctor so-called evidence to support wild claims. Others will fabricate alibis, frame the innocent, or try to cover up crimes. “Every advance in communications has brought with it the danger of misuse,” says Jeff Greenfield. “A hundred years ago, publishers brought out books of Abe Lincoln's speeches containing some words he never spoke. Hitler spread hate on the radio. But today's danger is different.”
Greenfield is right. Today is different -- because we have the power to make photographic forgery less worrisome.
Because even pathological liars tend to do it seldom when they face a high probability of getting caught.
Would we be tormenting ourselves over the Kennedy assassination today, if fifty cameras had been rolling, instead of just poor Abraham Zapruder’s? Suppose some passerby had filmed Nazi goons, setting fire to the Reichstag in 1935. Might Hitler have been ousted, and thirty million lives saved? Maybe not, but the odds would have been better. In the future, thugs and provocateurs will never know for certain that their sneaking calumny won’t be observed by a bystander or tourist, turning infra-red optics toward those scurrying movements in the shadows.
Especially at the anonymity that leads to so much nasty impunity, online.
We are all hallucinators to some degree. So now our beloved cameras may also prove faulty and prone to deception? At least they don’t lie except when they are told to. It takes a deliberate act of meddling to alter most images in decisive ways. Cameras don’t have imaginations, though their acuity is improving all the time. In fact, when their fields of view overlap, we can use them to check on each other. Especially if a wide range of people do the viewing and controlling.
As citizens, we shall deal with this problem the way members of an empirical civilization always have, by arguing and comparing notes, giving more credibility to the credible, and less to the anonymous or those who were caught lying in the past. Discerning truth, always a messy process, will be made more complex by these new, flawed powers of sight. But our consensual reality does not have to become a nightmare. Not when a majority of people contribute good will, openness, and lots of different points of view.
Again -- cameras are simply extensions of our eyes.
If you’re worried that some of them are lying, tradition offers an answer -- more cameras.
We’ll solve it by giving up the comforting blanket of darkness, opening up these new eyes, and sharing the world with six billion fellow witnesses.
(Update note: The world population is now over eight billion. And very little about that little morality tale has, alack, changed even a little. Except my growing sense of resigned agreement with the last two lines of Don McLean's song "Vincent.")