I have nothing to say on AI and I am saying it

“Suppose he had espoused his opinions on AI, I reflected: they probably wouldn’t have carried the weight he fervently hoped they would—significant opinions, even halfway significant opinions, even insightful opinions, being so exceedingly rare. Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was opinions on AI, the Niagara of viewpoints, the rushing rivers of hot takes, of oceans of perspectives, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of thoughts and arguments being shared across the internet at that very moment, with only a handful worth reading, let alone taking seriously. I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written about it. One less set of opinions to clutter up the discourse, one less perspective to add to the noise and echo endlessly from forums to social media to news outlets and back again, ad infinitum.” — (With apologies to Joseph Mitchell.)

Johnny Carson: “You wear a protective cup [on your crotch] but not a helmet. Why is that?”

Gordie Howe: “I can always pay someone to do my thinking for me.”

If you want to talk about learning technology in 2024, you’ve got to have a take on artificial intelligence. I’ve been waiting for someone to give me an Award of Appreciation for my relative silence on the subject. So far, no gratitude. No stackable, portable microcredentialed badges. Not even a gift card.

Then again, anyone who has endured the years of doom-mongering that has piled up here can guess how I feel. I don’t trust the motives of people who are poised to benefit most. I can’t get over how AI enthusiasts have so little respect for the value of human creativity and thinking, and such disregard for the people who make a living from skillfully exercising those things. There is the hand-waving away of environmental effects. The sneering condescending pedantry proponents use when they talk about “ethics”. And how the precautionary principle doesn’t seem to apply to… Oh, I’d better stop, before this devolves into a take.

As part of a university’s learning technology team, I don’t have the option of opting out of the AI hubbub. I try to keep up with the reading, pro and con. We’ve developed a resource intended to help our community make informed and effective decisions. My colleague Brenna Clarke Gray has written with her usual brilliance in her Digital Detox series, this year and last, and I’ve felt so lucky to talk at length with her and others here. Bad vibes aside, I’ve put in heaps of hours with various generative AI tools. Whatever useful things these tools can do, I want to understand them. I’m always looking for examples of mind-blowing practice, or techniques that will somehow unlock the boundless potential that the thought leaders assure us is already here.

Having appreciated the 2024 Middlebury Digital Detox on Demystifying AI, I’ve taken to re-using Tom Woodward’s materials from his workshop “Prompting Matters: Getting more from your interactions” when I do my own “prompting basics” sessions here. The information seems to go over with participants, and has led to some good discussions. I’m grateful for Tom’s characteristic generosity and lack of ego when I told him I was lifting his stuff, and generally just dig how he approaches the work, saying things like “my general guidelines for prompts are to do all the stuff your 9th grade English teacher told you to do when writing a paper.” He even has a take on AI that I’d like to make the last word on this here blog post:

LLMs and AI are big enough that I can’t be pro or con. I like certain potentials. I could have some real fun with aspects of these massively different technologies. I could also worry about so many things. I think Gardner’s old bag of gold analogy applies in lots of ways. Unfortunately, what we have learned is that if there is a bag of gold, capitalism will sell you plenty of high-priced, addictive, radioactive-lead-asbestos, gold-like™ items created by destroying the most beautiful areas in the world using slave labor. Soon no one will remember what real gold even looks like or that we didn’t have to do it this way or that most of the problems were created by pure greed. The companies will then charge us for rehab.

11 thoughts on “I have nothing to say on AI and I am saying it

  1. I love this write up. You bring such a critical eye and eloquence to the table. You inspired me in 2007 to think differently about social media – wikipedia in particular.

    I am excited about GenAI. It has made a huge difference in my own writing which has always been difficult for me. I also see really useful applications in education especially tutoring and perhaps moving away from content. How do I hold this excitement along with critical views? Do we stop exploring these tools because of their environmental impact or the copyright implications? How do we find space for the excitement?

    I don’t feel this tech will save us by creating access or disrupting education but I do see creative promise. I also have felt more excitement with technology in the workshops I run that I have ever experienced – even more than collaboratively editing a wiki page and this excitement about learning technology seems important.

    1. Hi Lucas – I’ve checked out some of your online workshops and you are doing some really good work. CTLT and UBC is definitely moving ahead in this space. I was meaning to drop you a line so I could get your take on a few things. Thanks for dropping by, it’s nice to hear from you!

  2. I see what you did there Lamb, :I have nothing to say” – and then say it.

    Kudos on the TRU AI and Education resource you point to, it’s very good.

    What has struck me as both funny and crazy-making is how predictable almost everything to do with AI and its hype have been. Like “authenticity” and “originality” and “copyright” and “environmental impact” haven’t been (or at least SHOULD have been) major concerns since…well at least the dawn of the internet (“No one knows you’re a dog”)…but surely much earlier.

    I’m not meaning to diminsh some of the amazing things that emerge when these models act at scale, just that it’s a trajectory that has been entirely predictable (does no one else read science fiction?) But apparently you don’t climb the corporate ladder by looking 100 rungs ahead (that’s not aimed at you but our many corporate overlords.)

    Now where did I leave my blue pill laying about? S

    1. I had nothing to say, and I ripped off John Cage to say it.

      I agree that the tones and rhythms of the AI wave feel familiar. These cycles have come before… If anything feels different it is scale, and speed, and maybe a certain grim nihilism behind it all. Or maybe the proponents really do buy what they are selling.

      I’m not entirely sold on comparisons of this moment with the early days of the internet. Sure, there was corporate fuckery beneath it all, but that moment saw barriers to entry being lowered and vast swaths of new and often weird voices finding a medium. There are very few players with the resources to direct AI activity. And too often the outputs just feel like a homogenized slurry of what used to be unique and distinct perspectives. Maybe the next release will fix that.

    1. meant to add .. Tom’s observation about bags of gold and what likely flows from it once in gets rinsed in “free market” logic .. reminded me of this bit from Utah Phillips

  3. Your prize is in the mail, but you’ve rang it well for me as likewise I’ve got no take to give. I remain baffled by the massive capitulation to machines even the makers don’t fully understand much less us at the same time shrouding it in opaqueness. And there’s a something being fear pod missing out to full on panic.

    I was deeply worried on clicking the link I’d find one of those same same images of a benevolent robots surrounded by tiny humans staring at walls of blue tinted screens. The Abject stays truly abject.

    1. I feel like I have seen enough DALL-E generated images prompted by “the future of education” for this lifetime.

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