I've been in the AI game for a while. I'm not John McCarthy by any means, but I've watched closely as generative AI as gone from a nascent idea to the must-know buzz word of 2023. I've carefully kept a record of every potential threat AI poses that pops into my brain and I've watched as the world has shifted from curiosity to skepticism to a warm(ish) embrace of AI. I've engaged in conversations with people who are enamored with the technology, and those who want nothing to do with it. With the excitement (and horror) around generative AI, the release of ChatGPT, facial recognition technology being used to ban "enemies" of businesses, and Microsoft's $10B investment in OpenAI, I think it's safe to say that artificial intelligence is in its "Wild West" era. Give it a cowboy hat and send it to the Saloon.
Tumbleweed Territory (what rules?)
Right now, at least in the United States, there are basically no rules. If states have enacted any AI regulation at all (17/50 have as of April 2022) it ranges from wishful guidance to rigid guardrails, but even the rigid regulation is narrow in the types of AI it restricts. When less than 50% of the United States has regulation on the most rapidly developing and impactful technology of our time, and the Federal Government still has yet to make any major legislative moves, that puts us in tumbleweed territory. It's a dry, dusty land with ideas for rules and ideas for regulation tumbling on changing winds. Tumbleweed territory is well-trodden land that many techies have walked before - because unregulated technology is not new. Governments lag behind (intentionally, at first) to let innovation allow for a global lead in a specific field, and then scramble to catch up when bad actors take the technology and use it to harm people.
AI companies arriving in these parts left and right, and some of their leaders are desperados. They've got an idea, and they're sojourning hither and yon to secure the resources (funding) they need to survive the imminent threat of a parched, downturned economy. Because the rules are a whisper on the wind, Desperados can generally create whatever they want, however they want, with nobody but their investors and the public to hold them accountable. This is akin to the bartender deciding whether you're "welcome in these parts" today, even if you threw a punch yesterday. It's subjective.
So, how does this play out? We've seen it before. The "white collar" desperados are really only held accountable when they've swindled the already-wealthy out of some of their wealth and called it "entrepreneurship". But what of the other desperados? These are the leaders in AI who will ignore what's morally and ethically right because it's not yet illegal, or because their circumstances are so dire (they're running out of funding) that they'll make a human compromise to meet a business end. They're not playing games with the wealthy's money - they're playing games with regular people's safety and security - and it'll take a while before the Sheriff can do anything about it.
Desperados, but robots
But the creators of wayward AI companies aren't the only renegades - the AI itself can be a danger in its own right. AI without regulation, whether it's well-intentioned or not, can have harmful effects on society. Artists are losing art competitions to AI generated art. Food service workers are losing their jobs to AI ordering services. BuzzFeed laid off 12% of their staff and is now using ChatGPT to create their content (and saw a 156% stock increase after this announcement). Optimization often leads to efficiency and cost savings in business, but can also be the spark that sets off a reduction in the workforce. Are we experiencing the dry, dusty winds of a great displacement? Is this the Dust Bowl of our time? Will we see people migrate and shift out of necessity rather than choice because the skillset they've carefully tended and cultivated isn't viewed as "fertile ground" anymore, in light of the disruptive skillset of AI?
The plain truth is that some AI is created to be a desperado. It was raised in the school of shady algorithms and exhibits lackluster morals that benefit some and harm others. The appeal of AI-as-a-desperado is that the company who creates the nefarious AI can hide behind it. Without ever acknowledging that it was human failure to consider potential harm that caused the harm in the first place, business leaders can say that this was a "problem with the technology" and offer to "update the software" - and with a statement that diffuses blame, it's hard to find the smoking gun, or hold anyone accountable for the damage that's been done.
In the AI Western, as in every Western, there are the "good guys" and the "bad guys" - except it's 2023 and women aren't excluded from the duel. Some company leaders are thriving in a United States that has a global lead in AI development and no rules to regulate it. If there's no sheriff in town, somebody is bound to get into a shoot-out as they fight for power in the Wild West. So someone is (rightfully) suing the City of Detroit for arresting and detaining them based on a false facial recognition match. Shot fired. Clearview AI continues to create and sell AI facial recognition solutions to law enforcement around the world, with no commitment to reducing bias or ensuring humans are in the loop. Shot fired. Getty Images bans the sales of AI generated images on their platform. Shot fired. OpenAI released ChatGPT. Shot fired. Microsoft invests $10B in Open AI. Shot fired. People publicly question Google's ability to compete with ChatGPT. Shot fired.
All of these fired shots say one thing, and one thing only: "This town ain't big enough for the both of us." And they're right. Investors are in a showdown to be the one who made the best bet on AI. Creators of AI are in a showdown to be the one who created the best AI in their category. Users of AI are in a showdown to prove that they can optimize and profit most with the technological advancements.
In this Wild West, it's not just the creators, investors and users of AI who stand to win or lose. It's not a town that's filled only with desperados. Ducking behind buildings and hiding behind the hype of AI are innocent bystanders, desperately looking for some kind of protection from a gun fight they never wanted to be in in the first place. When does the new sheriff get to town to help create and enforce some rules? It's the wild west out here.