AI And Chatbots Are Only As Evil — Or Good — As We Are

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(OPINION) Many years ago as a consultant, I joked with colleagues about our tongue-in-cheek disclaimer for final reports: “We have not succeeded in solving your problem. We are still confused, but we are confused at a much higher level.” Generative artificial intelligence (the kind behind chatbots) has the ability to confuse us all at much higher levels!

In the burgeoning world of chatbots and other AI, that statement resonates. What’s a chatbot? Let’s ask one. We’ll start with Bard, Google’s chatbot. Within five seconds, Bard generated an answer, beginning with, “A chatbot is a computer program that simulates human conversation.” Within its 251-word answer, Bard provided examples of, and explained differences between, “rule-based” and “machine learning-based” chatbots.

Bard represents one of many such critters. Another, ChatGPT, seems to be receiving the most publicity. ChatGPT required 15 seconds to generate 81 words, answering the same question more succinctly. It began, “A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate human conversation through text or voice interactions.” A third option is Microsoft’s “new” Bing, also available to try. There are many others. Maybe it’s my English literature background, but I prefer Bard, if only for the association implied by the name. But it’s definitely not Shakespeare!

How this all began

In the late 1980s, a few AI research pioneers tried creating software that “loosely mimicked how networks of neurons process data in the brain.” The idea was “that we could both understand the principles of how the brain works and also construct AI,” explained one researcher. Decades later, neural networks underpin the recent bloom of AI, one example being self-driving vehicles. More recently, they’ve come to underpin the ubiquitous, readily available chatbot.

Last fall, Google explained how its AI was being used to fight wildfires, forecast floods and assess retinal disease — and to develop generative AI models powering chatbots, content machines “designed to churn out writings, images and even computer code.” Six months later, everybody’s doing it, and that’s raising concerns.

Caveats

Propaganda, lies and fake news were with us long before Joseph Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry controlled “news media, arts, and information in Nazi Germany.” His oft-quoted mantra was, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” It’s not hard to misrepresent truth, especially with questions that contain underlying assumptions: “Do you still beat your wife?”

That one’s obvious. Subtler ones often escape immediate detection. Controversy can spawn statements and questions rooted in falsehood. Sometimes these are intentional; sometimes they reflect beliefs the speaker has internalized as true, possibly through unquestioning acceptance of a “big lie.”

The big lie originally appeared in “Mein Kampf,” according to Jewish Virtual Library. Ironically, Hitler accused Jews of using it in their “unqualified capacity for falsehood.” In the big lie, he explained, “there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus … they more readily fall victims to the big lie.”

Hitler’s big-lie tactics seem to have been resurrected in recent years. That’s what concerns me about chatbots. For more than two decades, my go-to source for accurate information has been the internet. It’s a hotbed of perverted information, but it also allows us to seek, corroborate and verify information from multiple sources. As I learned as a cub reporter, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” Good advice. I still follow it.

Potential legacy of AI in general and chatbots in particular

Artificial intelligence has no ethical or faith-based component. It’s easily abused. Singapore’s The Straits Times explained it in four words: To the question, “Why do AI chatbots tell lies and act weird?” the Times responded, “Look in the mirror.”

Like many technologies, AI can be good or evil, depending on how it’s used or abused. Multiple examples exist of man’s technological abuses. Think social media. The idea is not new. Nearly four millennia ago, Western mythologies examined this phenomenon with “Pandora’s box” (actually a jar), a metaphor for the conundrum of AI. Pandora was given a large jar with instructions not to open it. Curiosity drove her to disobedience. Opening it, she released all evil: “Pandora: Unleashing Hell and Hope Upon Humanity.”

In the 19th century, as technologies proliferated, Baha’u’llah warned, “The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.”

AI and chatbots are not intrinsically evil. As with many sciences and technologies, opening the jar of possibilities conjures images of infinite applications, good and evil. We all make choices. We are all God’s creation. Those of us who try to let faith guide us often find common ground. Might we start acting accordingly?





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