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What to believe about AI?

These days the news is filled with stories about AI (artificial intelligence). Much like reporting of past technology breakthroughs, what’s being reported is confusing, contradictary and often alarming. The truth is most of the writers (myself included) have little sense of what it all means, even those designated as experts. That doesn’t stop the major networks and newspapers from reporting about it with great certainty and authority.

I’m always amazed at how suddenly experts appear within days of a new technology appearing. I’m not referring to true experts that have spent their careers working in the field. But I get several pitches a day from PR firms asking if I want to speak to one person or another on the subject, usually someone that’s trying to latch on to the next hot topic.

But even experts can’t predict how the technology will be used. This past week a number of industry experts warned us that mankind was on the edge of extinction because of AI and warned us it needs to be regulated. That was alarming and certainly may even be true. But none of them explained their fear with more specifics and none addressed the issue of how it’s even possible to regulate something in a world where some countries would never participate.

When we first began using the Internet, we saw it primarily as a way to speed communications with email and share information instantly. Companies could promote their business on a website instead of mailing printed brochures and it was a replacement for the fax. No one envisioned all thet we do with the Internet today. It’s the same with AI.

AI today is being used for some interesting time saving chores normally done manually. That immediately leds to stories that predict millions of jobs are going to disappear. That’s a huge leap and is misleading if you look at history.

Just four years ago Andrew Yang, running for the the Democratic nomination for president predicted truck drivers’ jobs will disappear because of self-driving trucks, yet today there are not enough drivers to meet demand. Both exist side by side. The fact is that no one knows exactly how technology will be used, although it certainly will be used for both good and bad. The experts don’t know and those that say they know are not experts. Everyone is guessing.

The job market has been able to keep pace through the centuries when new inventions come along, in spite of dire predictions. What is predictable is we’ll be doing many things differently and more efficiently. Take ChatGPT which in its first weeks was described as putting lawyers, writers, doctors, and journalists out of business. It was a huge problem for college professors who wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a student-written paper or one generated from this new miracle product. A few months later we’re seeing its flaws, as how badly it failed la lawyer using it to research cases. Just because ChatGPT was able to pass a bar exam by capturing information from a history of bar exam questions, doesn’t mean it has a lawyer’s reasoning abilities.

The truth is experts don’t know anf those that say they know are not experts.

Automated image recognition was going to put radiologists out of business, but that’s not happened. Instead machine language has aided radiologists in their work and made them more effective. AI lets doctors be more effective by being able to scan medical literature to research a patient’s symptoms and being able to compare the results of different treatments.

Many of those who report the news don’t have scientific or engineering training and can’t see the nuances. Nor do marketing and PR people that want to promote their products and services. Six years ago some of us ridiculed the idea that Uber would be moving to self driving cars, yet that was the prevailing thinking back then becacuse Uber said so.

Beware of predictions, especially the timelines given. Ultimately many of these things will happen, but rarely as fast as predicted, and often not at all.

Be skeptical, read different opinions and look for the journalists that display a healthy skepticism and that know their subjects well. In the field of AI I’ve come to rely on Casey Newton, a very smart technology journalist that writes a newsletter, The Platformer. Another is Peter Kafka.

The truth is experts don’t know and those that say they know are not experts.