AI will not change the world (the way you think it will). Exactly as the Internet did not change the world (the way early adopters thought it would).
Of course, our daily lives have drastically shifted in the 30 years since home internet connected us. And of course, our lives 30 years from now will look even more different after consumer AI weasels its way into everything we touch.
But if you don't remember the late 1900s, the internet advent came with a different optimism. The quintessential phrase of the day, "The Information Super Highway!!", encapsulates all the hopes and expectations of the technology. We still echo those hopes when we wax on about the sheer knowledge available a tap away. With all those learnings we'll all make better decisions, self-educate throughout our lives, and society will grow greener each day. Now I hear the emptiness in our echoes. This is not The Internet I was promised. And AI will not become what the sirens sing of today.
It all started at Babel
You may already know, or you may be today's lucky 10,000, about the Library of Babel. Each time it makes a new round on social media there are a dozen reposts about how mind-blowing it is that everything ever written or that ever will be written already exists in the library.
Nearly every introduction to the Library of Babel leaves off at this unspoken existentialism. Implying that it could somehow change our lives if only we looked in the library for all the knowledge we are missing. They have not spent enough time in the library if they believe this, and it shows.
The creator of the library said this after building a search function able to take us directly to the book and page for a given passage of text:
Interestingly, this leaves the frustration of using the library unaltered. One can find only text one has already written, and any attempt to find it in among other meaningful prose is certain to fail. The tantalizing promise of the universal library is the potential to discover what hasn’t been written, or what once was written and now is lost. But there is still no way for us to find what we don’t know how to look for. Unless, of course, you’re brave enough to browse...
The reason the Library of Babel has not changed your life is because any useful knowledge is buried in a hopeless mire of gibberish.
Take this thought experiment: we are literally trapped in the Library of Babel, our world only consisting of bookshelf beside bookshelf with no escape, having never seen the sky outside. One day we miraculously find a page with the words "The sky outside is orange". Astounding scientific discovery?! No, the statement "The sky outside is blue" must also exist within a different book, elsewhere in the library. The library contains all statements, both true and false. This is the nature of Universal Libraries. With no way to verify this statement, we can do nothing with the knowledge the library tried to bestow on us.
Such is the fate of all Universal Libraries. By containing information both useful and useless, only the librarians already knowing which books are useful can find a good book. By containing statements both true and false only the researchers already knowing what's true can find veracity. By containing stories both beautiful and ugly, only already discerning eyes can find the aesthetic.
Authorship bestows value to the works. Books, images, and songs are not worthwhile because they exist, but are valuable because they were authored. Out of all the sounds, of all the colors, of all the letters, this particular group was chosen and placed together; or more importantly, all the other combinations were removed, bringing focus to the worthwhile.
It strikes me that the Internet is a Universal Library. Perhaps the most universal we've built to date. (of course, containing the entire Library of Babel makes it more universal than that library on its own). Like Bo Burnham sang in Welcome to the Internet from his 2021 special, Bo Burnham: Inside:
Obama sent the immigrants to vaccinate your kids!
Wait. No, that isn't the quote I was looking for. This library is too big. Here:
Could I interest you in everything, all of the time? A little bit of everything, all of the time? [...] Anything and everything, all of the time
It certainly feels as though everything is here. This article is here. The Library of Babel is here. Infinite scrolling on every page.
Let me propose a test for you though; for each thing you see, ask yourself three questions, and be honest with how much of the content you consume satisfies all three:
Is this mostly new to me?
Is this useful to me?
Is this true? Or is it misleading?
Be honest. Does 80% of the Internet satisfy just three questions? Even 20%? I was promised an "Information Super Highway" and instead I wade through an information swamp. The reins to unimaginable knowledge now bind me to a worthless merry-go-round of diversion.
Google boasts millions of results for every search, and yet I find the same shallow parroted lines behind every link. Worse than the Library of Babel, which mindlessly serves me gibberish, the Algorithms of the Internet have been crafted to serve me intentionally manipulative information: attempts to sway my votes and attempts to spend my dollars, mostly attempts at my dollars; never useful for me unless it's more useful to them.
And when you last searched, was there a primary source listed on the first page? I do not mean Wikipedia. I do not mean an article about news coverage of a new study. I mean the actual source of information. I find ten of the same rehashed summaries, probably written by a computer, and if I'm lucky one of them has linked to their source (which is paywalled and out of date).
We fell for the siren song of a Universal Library. Now I hear a remix crescendoing.
So far, Artificial Intelligence (AI) manufactures uncanny mimicries of human intelligence. AI, like humans, mostly recombines information into non-novel restatements of the same. Occasionally an AI, like a human, forms a novel combination: emergent work from previous learnings. Of those emergent works, some portion are truthful (that is, the predictions drawn from them will match reality) and some portion are false.
Unlike a human, an AI has no means to assess its novel works. Like the librarians of Babel, the AI is trapped within its Universal Library: the Internet. It cannot know if the sky is blue or orange outside of words and images transmitted to it via the Internet.
When training human minds, our teachers take great care to bring new, useful, truthful information into the developing intelligence. Have we taken the same care when training artificial minds? Or do we blindly feast them on a Universal Library?
When done blindly, the AI becomes a larger Universal Library than the content it consumed. As it becomes more universal, it paradoxically becomes less useful. Interactions devolve into hallucinations and false citations; how could the AI know any better? That is all it experienced on the Internet. Employing the AI only gives legs to the Universal Library of the Internet. It is no more true than before. It is no more useful than before. The difference is that now it enacts its disheveled will without the filter of external curation.
What will change?
We finally come to the biggest headline (that I see) from Generative AI advancements: "Programmers around the world, out of a job". Except, that headline has been running for 30 years. And it does not sound any different than the existential dread in the shallow sharing of those discovering the Library of Babel. They both have it wrong.
As I said, programmers have been "replaced by technology" since before I was born. How did I make a career doing something that shouldn't exist? How do I know I'll still exist despite AI "taking my job"?
The answer is simple. Each time a new technology enters meant to replace the skills of a professional, a new set of skilled professionals arises to interact with that technology. We saw it again this time around, before the ink on the "out of a job" headline dried, a new job title arose: Prompt Engineer.
The skills we can see change; less documentation on syntax, perhaps a touch more psychology. But the jobs continue. And why these classes of "technical" people always arise is because the skills we can't see stay the same. A craving for learning things, tenacity when facing challenging puzzles, creatively bringing different solutions to the same situation.
So, until AI does everyone's jobs, there will be jobs titled something engineer to take care of the rest. I'll see you all there.