Pluralistic: Three AI insights for hard-charging, future-oriented smartypantses (31 Jan 2024)

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A science-fiction pulp illustration of a man with a swollen, bald head that has been cut away to reveal its contents. The man's face has been cropped at the bridge of his nose, leaving just the swollen, hollow head, cheekbones, and staring eyes, the last of which have been covered with blue ovals. The hollow head has been filled with the trudging figures from Van Gogh's 'The Prisoners,' marching over a grid of vacuum tubes from an early computer. The background of the image is the wiring from an early mainframe, snarled and dense.

Three AI insights for hard-charging, future-oriented smartypantses (permalink)

Living in the age of AI hype makes demands on all of us to come up with smartypants prognostications about how AI is about to change everything forever, and wow, it's pretty amazing, huh?

AI pitchmen don't make it easy. They like to pile on the cognitive dissonance and demand that we all somehow resolve it. This is a thing cult leaders do, too – tell blatant and obvious lies to their followers. When a cult follower repeats the lie to others, they are demonstrating their loyalty, both to the leader and to themselves.

Over and over, the claims of AI pitchmen turn out to be blatant lies. This has been the case since at least the age of the Mechanical Turk, the 18th century chess-playing automaton that was actually just a chess player crammed into the base of an elaborate puppet that was exhibited as an autonomous, intelligent robot.

The most prominent Mechanical Turk huckster is Elon Musk, who habitually, blatantly and repeatedly lies about AI. He's been promising "full self driving" Teslas in "one to two years" for more than a decade. Periodically, he'll "demonstrate" a car that's in full-self driving mode – which then turns out to be a faked, recorded demo:

Musk even trotted an autonomous, humanoid robot on-stage at an investor presentation, failing to mention that this mechanical marvel was just a person in a robot suit:

Now, Musk has announced that his junk-science neural interface company, Neuralink, has made the leap to implanting neural interface chips in a human brain. As Joan Westenberg writes, the press have repeated this claim as presumptively true, despite its wild implausibility:

Neuralink, after all, is a company notorious for mutilating primates in pursuit of showy, meaningless demos:

I'm perfectly willing to believe that Musk would risk someone else's life to help him with this nonsense, because he doesn't see other people as real and deserving of compassion or empathy. But he's also profoundly lazy and is accustomed to a world that unquestioningly swallows his most outlandish pronouncements, so Occam's Razor dictates that the most likely explanation here is that he just made it up.

The odds that there's a human being beta-testing Musk's neural interface with the only brain they will ever have aren't zero. But I give it the same odds as the Raelians' claim to have cloned a human being:

The human-in-a-robot-suit gambit is everywhere in AI hype. Cruise, GM's disgraced "robot taxi" company, had 1.5 remote operators for every one of the cars on the road. They used AI to replace a single, low-waged driver with 1.5 high-waged, specialized technicians. Truly, it was a marvel.

Globalization is key to maintaining the guy-in-a-robot-suit phenomenon. Globalization gives AI pitchmen access to millions of low-waged workers who can pretend to be software programs, allowing us to pretend to have transcended the capitalism's exploitation trap. This is also a very old pattern – just a couple decades after the Mechanical Turk toured Europe, Thomas Jefferson returned from the continent with the dumbwaiter. Jefferson refined and installed these marvels, announcing to his dinner guests that they allowed him to replace his "servants" (that is, his slaves). Dumbwaiters don't replace slaves, of course – they just keep them out of sight:

So much AI turns out to be low-waged people in a call center in the Global South pretending to be robots that Indian techies have a joke about it: "AI stands for 'absent Indian'":

A reader wrote to me this week. They're a multi-decade veteran of Amazon who had a fascinating tale about the launch of Amazon Go, the "fully automated" Amazon retail outlets that let you wander around, pick up goods and walk out again, while AI-enabled cameras totted up the goods in your basket and charged your card for them.

According to this reader, the AI cameras didn't work any better than Tesla's full-self driving mode, and had to be backstopped by a minimum of three camera operators in an Indian call center, "so that there could be a quorum system for deciding on a customer's activity – three autopilots good, two autopilots bad."

Amazon got a ton of press from the launch of the Amazon Go stores. A lot of it was very favorable, of course: Mister Market is insatiably horny for firing human beings and replacing them with robots, so any announcement that you've got a human-replacing robot is a surefire way to make Line Go Up. But there was also plenty of critical press about this – pieces that took Amazon to task for replacing human beings with robots.

What was missing from the criticism? Articles that said that Amazon was probably lying about its robots, that it had replaced low-waged clerks in the USA with even-lower-waged camera-jockeys in India.

Which is a shame, because that criticism would have hit Amazon where it hurts, right there in the ole Line Go Up. Amazon's stock price boost off the back of the Amazon Go announcements represented the market's bet that Amazon would evert out of cyberspace and fill all of our physical retail corridors with monopolistic robot stores, moated with IP that prevented other retailers from similarly slashing their wage bills. That unbridgeable moat would guarantee Amazon generations of monopoly rents, which it would share with any shareholders who piled into the stock at that moment.

See the difference? Criticize Amazon for its devastatingly effective automation and you help Amazon sell stock to suckers, which makes Amazon executives richer. Criticize Amazon for lying about its automation, and you clobber the personal net worth of the executives who spun up this lie, because their portfolios are full of Amazon stock:

Amazon Go didn't go. The hundreds of Amazon Go stores we were promised never materialized. There's an embarrassing rump of 25 of these things still around, which will doubtless be quietly shuttered in the years to come. But Amazon Go wasn't a failure. It allowed its architects to pocket massive capital gains on the way to building generational wealth and establishing a new permanent aristocracy of habitual bullshitters dressed up as high-tech wizards.

"Wizard" is the right word for it. The high-tech sector pretends to be science fiction, but it's usually fantasy. For a generation, America's largest tech firms peddled the dream of imminently establishing colonies on distant worlds or even traveling to other solar systems, something that is still so far in our future that it might well never come to pass:

During the Space Age, we got the same kind of performative bullshit. On The Well David Gans mentioned hearing a promo on SiriusXM for a radio show with "the first AI co-host." To this, Craig L Maudlin replied, "Reminds me of fins on automobiles."

Yup, that's exactly it. An AI radio co-host is to artificial intelligence as a Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz tail-fin is to interstellar rocketry.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Understanding slush, a primer on rejection

#15yrsago Dumpster diving: the world’s most recession-proof job

#15yrsago US Airways bumps Flight 1549 survivors up to super-elite status for a year

#15yrsago France to give free newspaper subs to 18 year olds

#15yrsago Principles of the American Cargo Cult — the beliefs that make bad argument

#15yrsago Mummified Soviet-era East German flat unearthed

#15yrsago Judges jailed for taking bribes from private juvie prisons to send kids to jail

#10yrsago Army won’t answer Freedom of Information Request on its SGT STAR AI chatbot

#10yrsago Rob Ford Valentines

#5yrsago More FBI follies: civil rights groups are “terrorists” and their victims are the KKK

#5yrsago RIP, Jeremy Hardy, one of the UK’s funniest lefty comedians

#5yrsago Blackwater founder to site mercenary training camps conveniently close to China’s Uighur concentration camps

#5yrsago Millionaire dilettantes’ “education reform” have failed, but teacher-driven, evidence-supported education works miracles

#5yrsago Local council seeks additional funds for Thatcher statue to pay for a tall anti-vandal plinth

#5yrsago Stock art for a new Gilded Age

#1yrago Johnson and Johnson's bankruptcy gambit fails

Colophon (permalink)

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