I went to Microsoft to talk about AI. I’m still a little startled (but hopeful too)

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I was excited, of course.

Earlier this year, Microsoft invited me to its Silicon Valley campus to contemplate AI, the generative kind

So there I was in this enormous, airy building of the future, with hardly a human being in sight. I wafted into a very fetching theater – yes, they spelled my name wrong on the big screen — and there were several actual journalistic luminaries on stage too.

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Oh, and a PR man from Microsoft, dressed all in black.

The specific subject was AI and journalism. Little did I know how much it would move my whole year. For here I was, perhaps for the first time, confronted with the three great horsepersons of AI — the Experimenters, the Fearful and the Capitulists.

Those last ones? Capitalists who have already capitulated to AI’s allegedly all-encompassing powers.

Let’s try something new

Some panelists mused that the seemingly sudden incursion of AI offered a fine chance to dabble with it.

At one news service, for example, they’ve experimented with an AI version of one of its sports editors. 

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The idea is to put some text into this AI-generated expert and let it/them speak. Yes, but could this bot give us a decent betting line on the Niners vs the Cowboys? You have to find a balance, said the news service’s journalist. 

But is there really any value added by being, well, so tech-clever?

This seemed to me to be one of the currently less-considered questions about AI. The year was all about generative AI. But, as with quite a few tech breakthroughs, how useful (and profitable) will it ultimately be? And precisely where and how?

So a strong impulse was to put it to the test in as many ways as possible. You never know what might emerge.

Oh, AI. Who is the fairest of them all? You Are.

But then there was the gentlefellow from another tech publication.

I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it truly isn’t. It’s more of a mood enhancer.

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You see, this particular gentlefellow is an enormous enthusiast for AI. Actually, ‘enthusiast’ doesn’t quite cover it. He seemed more like the mesmerized subject of a despotic kingdom.

He offered the prediction that “generative AI will touch every piece of every part of the process of news from ideation, to headline generation to story editing.”

Full disclosure: I had the idea for this column myself, my editor is a human being with infinite patience, and I’m writing with my own fingers and (what’s left of my) mind.

That’s the thing with predictions. They don’t always come true. Just ask any AI sports editor.

I won’t dwell on some of this nice man’s more vivid admissions — they’ve been covered elsewhere

For me, what was most affecting were these words: “Frankly, I think that the AI model is always more clever than me because it includes all of the written text throughout all of history.”

I fear several things shot through my head at this very moment. No, of course ‘How clever actually are you?’ wasn’t one of them.

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Not even when he said: “It feels like it is so much more talented than I’ll ever be.”

I met many people in college who’d read a lot of books. Seemingly every book that mattered. But would I have thought them clever or talented? Would I have imagined they’d, um, change the world? Not really. (Update: They didn’t.)

Let AI be AI but you do you

I confess that night became my tech moment of the year.

Everywhere I went I seemed to meet either experimenters, fearers or, indeed, capitulists.

Both experimentation and fear are, of course, understandable. But to witness capitulism live on stage was a touch startling, and the feeling hasn’t quite gone away.

Also: AI in 2023: A year of breakthroughs that left no human thing unchanged

I couldn’t help offering a small retort to this committed AI capitulist. 

“Maybe you should just believe in yourself more,” I said. “I’m really concerned about you. Is it possible that because of your enthusiasm, you’re already abdicating your own talents? You’re actually maybe better than you think.”

It kept on striking me throughout the year that for all the talk about the evil side of AI – and, because humans, there’s plenty of evil – there’s another side.

The true fascination of generative AI doesn’t necessarily lie in what it’s going to do to us, or even for us. It’s what we can do with it. 

It may actually show how clever we really are, not merely how clever we think we are.

If the internet taught us anything – yes, I know the jury is still out – it’s that we derived enormous benefits and created new ways of talking and being — just as we endured awful changes of mood, behavior and hope. 

Isn’t that likely with AI too?

Also: Generative AI filled us with wonder in 2023 – but all magic comes with a price

2023 wasn’t necessarily the year when AI began to take over our souls. It was merely a large new door opening, sucking us toward a blinding light.

I feel an appropriate level of fear having experimented with ChatGPT, with both hilarious and freakish results. (Watching a deepfake version of someone you do business with is truly a mind-twisting experience.)

But to be a capitulist strikes me as not merely defeatist, but just a little dull.

Here’s an oddly optimistic thought: AI, this clever and talented thing, might even help us slow down a little and think a little more.

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Oh, and here’s another optimistic thought: We’ve just learned that AI can get tired and lazy – perhaps it’s embracing the human condition in the same way that we’re embracing the AI condition. 

After all, what can it do without our input? (Please don’t answer that right now.)

We won’t know for sure, of course until, say, 2032. 

You may, of course, place your bets now with my personal AI Betbot service.

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