Rise of the machines needs humanity

February 20, 2023 4:00 am

(Courtesy of George Ayoub)

The 1904 Wilson-Pilcher had a lever on the steering column to set the cars speed. Speedostat” arrived 46 years later, invented by blind engineer Ralph Teetor, considered the father of cruise control, from which you can draw a line to todays self-driving vehicles.

Were hundreds of millions of miles beyond Speedostat. With new and expanding AI wizardry, machines are now doing many things for us. Teetor would be amazed. Actually, so would Siri and Alexa.

AI, or artificial intelligence, refers to the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are designed to think and act like humans. AI has the capability to learn from data, reason, make decisions and perform tasks that would normally require human intervention. Some examples of AI include virtual personal assistants, image and speech recognition systems, and self-driving cars. AI has the potential to transform a wide range of industries, including healthcare, finance, and transportation, by automating manual processes, optimizing decision making and improving overall efficiency. As AI continues to evolve, it will play an increasingly important role in shaping our world and our future.

Heres how far down the digital road artificial intelligence has traveled: an AI program called ChatGPT wrote the paragraph you just read. I told it to create 100 words on artificial intelligence’s capabilities. Ten seconds later it spit out the paragraph above.

I used another AI program, DALLE2, to create the image that accompanies this commentary. I told it to generate a picture of a robot writing with a pen at a wooden desk. That took about 30 seconds.

ChapGPT and DALLE2 belong to OpenAI, a San Francisco-based company, which is creating some serious digital buzz. To compete with Alphabet, Amazon and Meta for the biggest chunk of the artificial intelligence market, Microsoft is ponying up a $10 billion investment into OpenAI.

A recent UBS study estimated that ChatGPT topped 100 million active monthly users in just 60 days, the fastest a consumer application has ever grown. Sometimes you have to wait because of so many users.

All the gee-whizness and business competition aside, programs that can produce a serviceable essay and create art can indeed change the world … just as it told us above. Moreover, AI is constantly learning and improving, so a B- essay becomes a B+ next time, the annual reports introduction sings like a choir of middle managers looking for a promotion and that speech to the board gets better every year. Even if youre selling disinformation, wackadoodle conspiracy theories or some other nutty nonsense, why not at least sound better?

ChatGPT, even though its facts can sometimes be scrambled, is an especially daunting prospect for those of us in academe. As an adjunct faculty member at a small liberal arts school, Im rethinking the whole idea of the college essay. Instead, Im considering ways in which I can incorporate ChatGPT into my classes as a tool for problem solving and critical thinking.

One thing is clear: AI has changed the landscape … not simply on college campuses and not just for the worse. Programs such as ChatGPT can reduce many menial tasks in the workplace, allowing everyone from artist to entrepreneur to realign and reinvest their energies and capital into real human creations.

The college essay may become cruise control prose or worse, a relic of the analog world. Still, as columnist David Brooks suggested recently, an AI-generated composition or piece of art — no matter how detailed, thorough and mechanically correct — will always lack one thing: the human touch. It does not spring from a persons imagination, bursts of insight, anxiety and joy that underlie any profound work of human creativity” Brooks wrote.

He may be on to something. Perhaps the rise of the machines will make us more appreciate what is truly human, truly beautiful, truly an articulation of words, images or sounds that moves us.

Thats only possible if we accept that AI can generate essays, control automobiles that drive themselves and help us fashion better tools for a better world. Such acceptance — even embrace — of this new paradigm should neither reduce our humanity nor keep us from expressing it. Rather, we need to differentiate works of real” intelligence from AI in order to recognize, appreciate and celebrate human creativity.”

I get the whole ChatGPT thing … I think. So Im changing my syllabus.

Even so, as much as AI can do for me and you to make our lives better, it will never be human. That part is up to us.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.