By Muhammad Khakwani, Senior System Consultant at Saudi Aramco
One stormy evening in the early 1800s, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron gathers his fellow poets and writers. As the evening wears on, he asks those present to write a scary story each; perhaps the thunder and lightning add to the mood du soir. Mary Shelley pens an idea, which becomes the Frankenstein novel, and John Polidori writes about vampires.
The thoughts for two epic tales, Dracula and Frankenstein, were born that evening. I am no expert on vampires and their relevance today, but with Frankenstein we can draw some interesting parallels.
Some say Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel. A genre to let imagination run free and tell a story without constraints. Then, something changed; what seemed like fiction in the past has become more and more like reality. Fast-changing times. In an effort to make the impossible possible, tech companies are elbowing each other out of the way to get to the front. The first to do this are reaping the rewards, while others risk becoming irrelevant just as fast as they surface. A sign on the entrance of Facebook’s head office used to read “Move Fast and Break Things,” promoting the culture needed to survive.
And moving fast we are. Look back a decade and you will wonder how bills got paid and how you kept in touch with family and friends without instant messaging and mobile banking services. The need for speed is paying no heed to the implications that may hold negative connotations. Are we rushing forward without looking before we leap? Maybe, but if I don’t leap, the one next to me in the race will, and then he will be ahead of me. Who has time for philosophical discussions when there are technical barriers to break through?
Searches for information moved from the library to Google. The news cycle moved from the evening bulletin to 24 hours and ultimately pushed to devices in our pockets. “Ring ding,” notifications arrive in real-time in the form of short messages beeping on my phone, every time something happens with one of my registered interests. Like most people, I think I have perfected the art of sneaking a look during meetings or family dinners. Jokes told between friends are now messages or video clips shared on WhatsApp. Who has time to tell an anecdote; just forward it. Better yet, create a group and then reach all at once.
So far so good. It is not bad, really. Different perhaps, certainly for older people, while the younger generations find it perfectly normal. The convenience outweighs any harm, and we are always willing to pay the price. That said, there are harmful side effects and they come in different flavors. Too much screen time. The blue light effect staring at phones late at night causing sleep disarray. Less outdoor activity and physical time spent with friends and more online and in chat rooms. Fraud and identify theft. Private videos going viral. Fake videos and news.
The tale of Frankenstein is about a person who uses scientific methods to make a creature from dead bodies. Not medieval magic. This time it is science based experiments that yield the phenomenal results. Dr. Frankenstein succeeds where others have failed and brings to life this creature, which will have intelligent faculties. As the story is told people are horrified by this new creation. The creation, which sparks interest at first, is intelligent and able to converse, but it is soon rejected by people and seen as a monster.
Drawing a philosophical parallel, that is just where we might be today with artificial intelligence. The new technologies of ChatGPT are making Google searches look positively boring. A new age is dawning and this one is so real. It is actually causing the frontrunners to pause and take a breath. The new code powering AI platforms like ChatGPT is so good it can pass the bar exam to become a lawyer, write term papers for students, write code for programmers, answer medical questions like a doctor, and write poems for you in case you are having trouble expressing your feelings.
The danger is that the work it does is so good that it can be really misleading. We are not talking about politicians deflecting questions by calling them “fake news.” These are actually believable images and text, which are so close to reality it is hard to tell them apart. A free image creator application now uses AI to generate images based on text you supply it. Take a look at a Star Wars Jedi fishing on the Jiddah corniche. The image comes complete with a shadow. AI-produced images can be quite ridiculous and entertaining, such as a deer shopping in Milan.
The problems caused can be spread of misinformation and plagiarism, and reckless use of these new tools. One can be malicious and supply images of people into this technology, and ask it to create images or videos, which can be potentially damaging and show others in a bad light. One such application showed a person who is begging his parents to send money as he has been taken hostage. The technology mimicked the person’s face, facial expressions, emotions, and voice, and the parents could not tell the difference. Investigating authorities asked families to set up code words and secret passwords, which would be known only to them in case they were targeted by such criminal intent.
The voices urging caution have been muted in the past, but the ones urging caution now are causing alarm bells. The lead AI pioneer in Google has quit over the dangers posed by this technology. It may be time for a pause. It may be time for thought. It may be time to put up safeguards before we go too far down this road.
As an analogy, consider when the motor car was invented. People wanted to talk about getting to places quickly and reliably and move goods and build roads. The ones talking about accidents and fatalities were probably not very popular at the time. However, at some point, the need for traffic rules and regulation became necessary. The industry had to adapt to promote safe motoring.
The technology industry might want to do some of that before AI is perceived as a Frankenstein; an uncontrollable monster of our creation.