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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

AI machines aren’t ‘hallucinating’. But their makers are

Naomi Klein
The Guardian
Originally published 8 May 23

Inside the many debates swirling around the rapid rollout of so-called artificial intelligence, there is a relatively obscure skirmish focused on the choice of the word “hallucinate”.

This is the term that architects and boosters of generative AI have settled on to characterize responses served up by chatbots that are wholly manufactured, or flat-out wrong. Like, for instance, when you ask a bot for a definition of something that doesn’t exist and it, rather convincingly, gives you one, complete with made-up footnotes. “No one in the field has yet solved the hallucination problems,” Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and Alphabet, told an interviewer recently.

That’s true – but why call the errors “hallucinations” at all? Why not algorithmic junk? Or glitches? Well, hallucination refers to the mysterious capacity of the human brain to perceive phenomena that are not present, at least not in conventional, materialist terms. By appropriating a word commonly used in psychology, psychedelics and various forms of mysticism, AI’s boosters, while acknowledging the fallibility of their machines, are simultaneously feeding the sector’s most cherished mythology: that by building these large language models, and training them on everything that we humans have written, said and represented visually, they are in the process of birthing an animate intelligence on the cusp of sparking an evolutionary leap for our species. How else could bots like Bing and Bard be tripping out there in the ether?


Hallucination #3: tech giants can be trusted not to break the world

Asked if he is worried about the frantic gold rush ChatGPT has already unleashed, Altman said he is, but added sanguinely: “Hopefully it will all work out.” Of his fellow tech CEOs – the ones competing to rush out their rival chatbots – he said: “I think the better angels are going to win out.”

Better angels? At Google? I’m pretty sure the company fired most of those because they were publishing critical papers about AI, or calling the company out on racism and sexual harassment in the workplace. More “better angels” have quit in alarm, most recently Hinton. That’s because, contrary to the hallucinations of the people profiting most from AI, Google does not make decisions based on what’s best for the world – it makes decisions based on what’s best for Alphabet’s shareholders, who do not want to miss the latest bubble, not when Microsoft, Meta and Apple are already all in.


Is all of this overly dramatic? A stuffy and reflexive resistance to exciting innovation? Why expect the worse? Altman reassures us: “Nobody wants to destroy the world.” Perhaps not. But as the ever-worsening climate and extinction crises show us every day, plenty of powerful people and institutions seem to be just fine knowing that they are helping to destroy the stability of the world’s life-support systems, so long as they can keep making record profits that they believe will protect them and their families from the worst effects. Altman, like many creatures of Silicon Valley, is himself a prepper: back in 2016, he boasted: “I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”