It’s a Brave New World…again!
My father’s generation witnessed an amazing technological transformation. In his lifetime, the world went from flimsy bi-planes (at barely over 100 mph) to the SR-71 that set a speed record over 2,100 mph. Man stepped foot on the moon.
I have likewise seen the exponential growth of technology. When I was a first freshman at Georgia Tech, I used a slide-rule to calculate integrals and learned (a now obsolete) computer language using “punch cards.” From my first IBM PC (really a combination word processor and sophisticated calculator), computers have morphed into a portal to a universe of information and analytical capability.
I have grown used to the evolution of communications from a rotary phone to my smart phone. One hand-held device can now send and receive emails and texts; notify me of upcoming appointments, reports the weather, and prompts me on news and social media. It is a mobile “hotspot.” It streams music. It also takes beautiful pictures that I can edit and share. It feeds information to my car and is even it’s key (Advice-don’t let your phone die when you are out on the town).
My life with automobiles has likewise progressed from a Ford Pinto with 4-gear stick shift (zero to sixty in a couple of minutes) to my Ford Mustang Mach E, a direct drive electric car (zero to sixty in 5.2 seconds). The push-button AM radio has been supplanted by an XM satellite system with surround sound.
Each one of these technologies is amazing on its own, together they create an environment that I could never have imagined. But it has recently gone well beyond even these incredible devices and machines.
One day last week, I was heading down the interstate and had a sudden revelation. I was driving with my hands off the steering wheel (legitimately). The vehicle was in a semi-autonomous driving mode. The car notified me that I had a text message, which it proceeded to read to me. The navigation app then warned me that there was a vehicle on the side of the road ahead.
I had just left my office after working on a project. For the first time I accessed “Chat GPT,” the new (to me) open AI platform. I asked it to give me an output based on a set of criteria I had worked up. The response was rapid and startlingly good. It will probably save me several hours in research and devising a structure. It is a quantum leap.
What impact will these technologies have as we move forward?
There are already major issues with market-leader Tesla’s self-driving features. They have been sued by victims of accidents in which a vehicle erred. Furthermore, Tesla is now facing a class action lawsuit over “allegedly misleading the public regarding its Autopilot, Enhanced Autopilot, and Full Self-Driving Capability technology.” Such actions seem inevitable when new technology is rolled-out. My “Blue Cruise” only works on specific segments of interstate…and it warns me if my eyes wander. Regardless, I am not confident that it is foolproof.
The implications for academia seem immense. This is not like a Google search; it can produce not just answers but a full-blown end-product. How can you inhibit its use and the potential for plagiarism? (Is it even really plagiarism?) The output has a natural flow that might not mimic any individual writing style but would be difficult to identify as “artificial.” Will a simple pledge of honesty really prevent widespread “cheating?” If remote learning was a major challenge, imagine the disruptive character of this capability.
We have taken a major step (well, it just now apparent to me). Is this just the logical extension of the industrial and computer revolutions or is this something different? At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I have serious concerns about the “dark side” of these advances. Machines not only assist us, but they are also perhaps on the verge of supplanting us. They won’t just answer our queries, they may now take over jobs that not just of individual phsical effort, but human thought as well.
Alan Turing (a British mathematician who help break Nazi codes in WW II) invented the “Imitation Game” (also the title of a biographical movie). The so called “Turing Test” was meant to analyzed whether a machine could exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. An evaluator would judge two entities in a conversation (one a machine). If they could not reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine would be said to have “passed the test.”
Will “machine learning” and “artificial intelligence” truly become undifferentiated from human activity? Will machines “learn” enough to become human-like? If they get close, what differentiates us from machines? Will they evolve like “Sky Net,” the artificial neural network that gained “self-awareness” (in the sci-fi classic, “The Terminator”), and ultimately present an existential threat.
Science fiction seems to be merging into science fact. As we move into this “Brave New World,” perhaps we ought to pause and ask the fundamental question, “What makes us human?”