The Unstoppable March of Technology

Every conversation that I have been in over the past 3 weeks outside the home has been about generative AI, and the vein of all these conversations is quite similar. I did not meet a lot of people, but I can tell that most of the people are optimistic about this new “technological advancement.”1 I met a few skeptics who believe that generative AI is just a summary of what’s already out there and incapable of coming up with something original. I agree with those skeptics, based on the screenshots that abound on Twitter, and of which a few I have seen. The apparent inevitability of the “next thing” in technology is incomprehensible; it is a cultural, almost religious belief, in the social psyche. For a while now, there has been this unstated acceptance that new technologies will come along, and those who don’t use them or, at least, adapt to them, will be left behind in the dust. Is the dust good enough? One wouldn’t even think of it; when has dust ever been “good enough”?. Is the cutting edge really something you want to be at? You better want it, or you will be left behind. Even if you are standing still on the travelator of technological advancements, you will be pulled along, dragging and screaming, on the unstoppable march of technology.

It is probably quite hard to keep up with the news. I don’t read much news anymore. Many times, I don’t even know the single topic that has been debated on all the newsletters for the past 3 days. I don’t feel like I miss many things. I find out about these things eventually, and most of the time, I am underwhelmed by what I find. So, I have decided to not keep up with the news and instead spend my time on long form magazine articles, non-fiction books that try to guess where things went wrong2, and novels that have nothing to do with the present. But even this level of disconnection did not save me from finding out about the recent advances in generative AI technology.

For a long time, the goal of AI scientists was to make something that was sentient and could think and do things like a human being. Some AI scientists thought the creation of such an AI system was so inevitable that they started working on the problem of ensuring that these AI systems (which will undoubtedly be created, duh.) don’t end up adversely affecting humans. Such an AI system does not exist yet. However, AI technology has come a long way: It can now write a mediocre essay about any topic, which is probably plagiarizing 100s of great essays and millions of mediocre essays on the same topic. (I am also a mediocre essay writer; ChatGPT is my peer.)

Another feature of this generative AI craze has been that it can write individual, isolated functions in programming languages for things like integrating a spreadsheet with some other tool or for connecting to the API of a service and automating some task, which was being performed manually. This feature is probably not very scary to most software engineers; nevertheless, let me say it aloud just once: Most engineers are not writing isolated functions. Their everyday task involves making sense of the myriad ways things are done at their workplace, and figuring out a way to make the technological stack a little bit easier to understand.

Generative AI can also create some images. And Wired magazine thinks that these images are better than “art created by most humans.” They declared that generative AI now has “lowercase creativity.” I think this claim is just wrong. AI art is AI art; not “real” art. There is no “authority” who can decide what is “real” art and what isn’t. So, whatever each viewer decides goes. For me, a painting by Klee or that of a minion by my niece is still objectively and incomparably better than the images are generated by some computer program. Despite all the dressing up of AI as some “magical system,” it is after all just a computer program.

Funnily enough, even this article about “AI’s ability to generate images that are better than art by most humans” is not content with this bizarre and monumental claim! Somewhere in the middle, and completely out of nowhere, the author starts talking about how in the future you could generate 3D images, then use that to create a world in the metaverse and then walk through it with your VR headset. (You might notice that all the terms used in the previous sentence were coined in the 90s and entered the public’s psyche only less than a year ago, when one company decided to change their name and make one of those terms the central thing in their future business.)

Once, there were letters and We Used To Wait. Then, there was the Telegraph. Then, Radio, Television (Idiot Box), Computer, Internet (Revolutionary), Smartphones, Social Media (Anxiety), Connected Homes (Internet of Things). Every technology brought along some problems which were fixed by the next advancement. No one stopped to think whether the adoption of each technological advancement was necessary; whether it introduced more problems than it solved; whether the march of technology was really inevitable.

Freud noticed this early on:3

Freud once pointed out that new technologies merely solve problems created by other technologies. To the common refrain that without the telephone, we’d be unable to hear the voices of our adult children who live hundreds of miles away, he replied, “If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.”

Postscript: A list of articles that take a sober view of what is lost by always being on the cutting edge:

  1. AI And The Limits Of Language
  2. The Prompt Box is a Minefield: AI Chatbots and Power of Language
  3. Does Digital Connectivity Democratize Culture?
  1. It is interesting that the change has been characterized as an advancement even before it is completely clear what the change really even is. 

  2. We are all in tacit agreement that things have gone terribly wrong, right? 

  3. Author: Meghan O’Gieblyn. From the “Dear Cloud Support” column in the February 2023 issue of Wired magaine.