Pluralistic: Supervised AI isn't (23 August 2023)

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A CCTV observation room, in which a blurry male figure watches a large bank of monitors. Each monitor is displaying a laughing clown, whose nose has been replaced with the menacing red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.'

Supervised AI isn't (permalink)

It wasn't just Ottawa: Microsoft Travel published a whole bushel of absurd articles, including the notorious Ottawa guide recommending that tourists dine at the Ottawa Food Bank ("go on an empty stomach"):

After Paris Marx pointed out the Ottawa article, Business Insider's Nathan McAlone found several more howlers:

There was the article recommending that visitors to Montreal try "a hamburger" and went on to explain that a hamburger was a "sandwich comprised of a ground beef patty, a sliced bun of some kind, and toppings such as lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc" and that some of the best hamburgers in Montreal could be had at McDonald's.

For Anchorage, Microsoft recommended trying the local delicacy known as "seafood," which it defined as "basically any form of sea life regarded as food by humans, prominently including fish and shellfish," going on to say, "seafood is a versatile ingredient, so it makes sense that we eat it worldwide."

In Tokyo, visitors seeking "photo-worthy spots" were advised to "eat Wagyu beef."

There were more.

Microsoft insisted that this wasn't an issue of "unsupervised AI," but rather "human error." On its face, this presents a head-scratcher: is Microsoft saying that a human being erroneously decided to recommend the dining at Ottawa's food bank?

But a close parsing of the mealy-mouthed disclaimer reveals the truth. The unnamed Microsoft spokesdroid only appears to be claiming that this wasn't written by an AI, but they're actually just saying that the AI that wrote it wasn't "unsupervised." It was a supervised AI, overseen by a human. Who made an error. Thus: the problem was human error.

This deliberate misdirection actually reveals a deep truth about AI: that the story of AI being managed by a "human in the loop" is a fantasy, because humans are neurologically incapable of maintaining vigilance in watching for rare occurrences.

Our brains wire together neurons that we recruit when we practice a task. When we don't practice a task, the parts of our brain that we optimized for it get reused. Our brains are finite and so don't have the luxury of reserving precious cells for things we don't do.

That's why the TSA sucks so hard at its job – why they are the world's most skilled water-bottle-detecting X-ray readers, but consistently fail to spot the bombs and guns that red teams successfully smuggle past their checkpoints:

TSA agents (not "officers," please – they're bureaucrats, not cops) spend all day spotting water bottles that we forget in our carry-ons, but almost no one tries to smuggle a weapons through a checkpoint – 99.999999% of the guns and knives they do seize are the result of flier forgetfulness, not a planned hijacking.

In other words, they train all day to spot water bottles, and the only training they get in spotting knives, guns and bombs is in exercises, or the odd time someone forgets about the hand-cannon they shlep around in their day-pack. Of course they're excellent at spotting water bottles and shit at spotting weapons.

This is an inescapable, biological aspect of human cognition: we can't maintain vigilance for rare outcomes. This has long been understood in automation circles, where it is called "automation blindness" or "automation inattention":

Here's the thing: if nearly all of the time the machine does the right thing, the human "supervisor" who oversees it becomes incapable of spotting its error. The job of "review every machine decision and press the green button if it's correct" inevitably becomes "just press the green button," assuming that the machine is usually right.

This is a huge problem. It's why people just click "OK" when they get a bad certificate error in their browsers. 99.99% of the time, the error was caused by someone forgetting to replace an expired certificate, but the problem is, the other 0.01% of the time, it's because criminals are waiting for you to click "OK" so they can steal all your money:

Automation blindness can't be automated away. From interpreting radiographic scans:

to autonomous vehicles:

The "human in the loop" is a figleaf. The whole point of automation is to create a system that operates at superhuman scale – you don't buy an LLM to write one Microsoft Travel article, you get it to write a million of them, to flood the zone, top the search engines, and dominate the space.

As I wrote earlier: "There's no market for a machine-learning autopilot, or content moderation algorithm, or loan officer, if all it does is cough up a recommendation for a human to evaluate. Either that system will work so poorly that it gets thrown away, or it works so well that the inattentive human just button-mashes 'OK' every time a dialog box appears":

Microsoft – like every corporation – is insatiably horny for firing workers. It has spent the past three years cutting its writing staff to the bone, with the express intention of having AI fill its pages, with humans relegated to skimming the output of the plausible sentence-generators and clicking "OK":

We know about the howlers and the clunkers that Microsoft published, but what about all the other travel articles that don't contain any (obvious) mistakes? These were very likely written by a stochastic parrot, and they comprised training data for a human intelligence, the poor schmucks who are supposed to remain vigilant for the "hallucinations" (that is, the habitual, confidently told lies that are the hallmark of AI) in the torrent of "content" that scrolled past their screens:

Like the TSA agents who are fed a steady stream of training data to hone their water-bottle-detection skills, Microsoft's humans in the loop are being asked to pluck atoms of difference out of a raging river of otherwise characterless slurry. They are expected to remain vigilant for something that almost never happens – all while they are racing the clock, charged with preventing a slurry backlog at all costs.

Automation blindness is inescapable – and it's the inconvenient truth that AI boosters conspicuously fail to mention when they are discussing how they will justify the trillion-dollar valuations they ascribe to super-advanced autocomplete systems. Instead, they wave around "humans in the loop," using low-waged workers as props in a Big Store con, just a way to (temporarily) cool the marks.

And what of the people who lose their (vital) jobs to (terminally unsuitable) AI in the course of this long-running, high-stakes infomercial?

Well, there's always the food bank.

"Go on an empty stomach."

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0; West Midlands Police, CC BY-SA 2.0; modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

*A Girl and Her Bird: Emergence by David R. Palmer (I LOVE THIS BOOK)

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This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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