by Jay Johansen | Mar 17, 2023
I regularly see stories in the news and articles on the Internet about how AI is going to take away people's jobs and cause massive unemployment. I'm not afraid. Because present AIs are way too stupid.
I see all these golly-wow stories about how AIs will soon be smarter than people at almost every task. Or that they already are smarter than people. No, they're not.
Case in point: On-line ordering. I won't name any specific companies (like one that rhymes with "Bananazon" ...) But ...
Case 1: A few months ago I bought a new printer on line. It was a very nice printer: a Brother LED. And for months after that, AIs on many, many web sites I vivisted showed me ads for laser pritners. Now, showing you ads for the product you just bought or others like it makes sense if the item is something you would quickly consume and, if you liked it, want more. Like candy bars or toothpaste. Yes, if I bought some brand of candy bar and liked it, I might want to buy more of them within a few weeks. I might be interested in trying other similar candy bars. It would make sense to show me such ads. But a computer printer? I expect it to last me for years. The day after I buy a new printer, about the last thing I would be likely to buy would be another printer. If I really needed to replace my new printer within a few days -- if it broke down that fast or proved unsatisfactory -- I certainly would not buy another of the same brand. Probably not even a similar one. I'd be looking for some totally different type of printer. But the AIs are too stupid to make a distinction between products you would likely buy again soon and those you wouldn't.
Case 2: Speaking of that printer ... So now it's been a few months and I just ordered some new toner for it. And the AI said, "Other related products you might be interested in" and listed a bunch. Most of them were other brands of toner. If I just ordered toner today, why would I want to immediately order more toner? If I needed more than one set, I would have ordered several at once, not order one today and another tomorrow. Another item on the list was a new printer. If I just ordered toner for my printer, why would I want to order another printer? The fact that I ordered toner rather implies that I expect to continue using this printer. But best of all, another "related item" they listed was ... restroom signs. You know, those signs that say "men" and "women" that they put on restroom doors. What in the world does that have to do with printer toner? What made them think that because I ordered toner for my printer that I likely want to put up restroom signs? This is for my home. I don't have separate men's and women's restrooms at home. Even if they're supposing that this might be for a printer for an office, why would they associate printer toner with restroom signs? I'm guessing that if one studied the descriptions of the printer toner and the restroom signs, one would find some common words. Or maybe they have some other criteria that led the AI to think they were related. But either way, the association is nuts. The AI goofed up.
Case 3: I got an email from a web site that sells books with the subject line, "A new book by an author you've read". When I opened the email it said that an author whose books I have ordered in the past has just published a new book, and helpfully gave me a link to the page on their web site where I could order this book. Okay, that sounds plausible. If I've read other books by this author, maybe I want to read his new one. I think I only ordered one book by this author in the past, so one might say that was evidence that I wasn't that impressed. If I really liked his work, wouldn't I have bought other books he wrote after reading this one? Maybe the reason why I only bought one was because I read it and didn't like it. But whatever, it's as good a guess on the part of their AI as any, right? Except the author who they said just published a new book was ... Ernest Hemingway. Consdiering that he died 60 years ago, I found myself doubthing that he just published a new book. I followed the link and it turns out that the book in question was a collection of his letters. So apparently someone put together a collection of Hemingway's letters, and the author was listed as "Ernest Hemingway" rather than the compiler. Okay, if someone liked Hemingway's books, it's fair to guess they might be interested in a collection of his letters. But the AI was too dumb to distinguish between "this author has written a new book" and "an editor has put together a new collection of this author's writings". Surely that's not a unique situation. People are always putting together new editions of old books and new anthologies of old authors' works. But either this book was improperly coded in the database, or the people who programmed the AI didn't think of this fact so they could make the text of the email coherent.
Well, et cetera. A reasonably intelligent human would not have made any of the mistakes I listed here. I could think of many other examples of AIs doing goofy things -- these are just ones that happened to come to mind. (The toner one was yesterday, which inspired me to write this article, and that brought the printer to mind, which brought the email from the same company to mind.) Maybe some day AIs will truly be smarter than people and not make these sort of dumb mistakes. But there's no reason to believe that will happen any time soon.
No, I am not afraid of losing my job to an AI.
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