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Why should humans be in charge? The PM's humiliation masks a deadly crisis of authority

A dead man walking (Daniel Leal-Olivas - WPA Pool/Getty Images)


December 16, 2021   6 mins

In the winter after the financial crash, two Swedish conceptual artists sent me to Hong Kong to interview the head of an offshore finance management company. Their project, Headless, played with the idea that finance has become an anonymous, self-propagating system of shell companies and proxies. To underline the sense of a faceless, agency-less force at work in the world, the artists used proxies — including me — for every part of the work.

What would happen, though, if instead of creating the impression of headlessness, we actually took artists out of the creative process? Well, now we can find out. Researchers are experimenting with applying machine learning to visual imagery, and the result is the unnerving phenomenon of ‘GAN art’.

A ‘GAN’ is a ‘generative adversarial network’, which is to say two machine learning networks programmed to run in parallel. The first is fed a set of input data, such as a type of image, and told to generate new, believable versions of that data. The second is tasked with assessing whether the new, AI-generated data are real or fake.

The aim is for the first network to succeed in fooling the second network more than half the time. As the two models adjust in relation to one another, they become increasingly skilled at predicting and manipulating patterns in the input imagery.

One playful result of this is web or smartphone apps that invite the user to ‘create’ — that is, prompt the AI to create — images based on text. Wombo is a popular one: you can choose from several different ‘styles’, enter your text prompt and watch the machine create an image.

When you do so, two things become apparent. First, the more abstract the prompt, the more difficult it is to distinguish the output from human-created art. But secondly, there’s something indefinably off about them. That comes more clearly into focus when you give the machine a more specific prompt — as I discovered when I asked Wombo to draw me a cat.

Cat images are so popular and widespread online that one 2013 cat food ad claimed that they make up 15% of all internet traffic. With such an immense dataset, you’d think an AI would find it easy to generate a cat image.

But when I prompted Wombo with ‘Kitten’ I got what looks like the disfigured victim of some deranged scientist’s experimental flesh-sculpting, as viewed through a haze of LSD. Here it is; judge for yourself.

A kitten, apparently. (Wombo)

Looking at this abomination, the off-ness becomes easier to grasp.

Everyone — at least, everyone human who’s ever spent time online — knows what a kitten looks like. A skilled artist can convey a kitten’s shape and movement with a few lines of a pencil. But that knowledge is acquired not just by mechanically digesting and attempting to synthesise the aggregate of two-dimensional kitten images, but also understanding what kittens are, and what they mean in our cultural context.

Without that capacity to filter and actively re-interpret in terms of the wider context, replacing meaning with pattern recognition creates something that’s both eerily almost-intelligible but also deeply disturbing. It is, as Macbeth says, “a tale told by an idiot”.

So what, you might say. GAN ‘art’ isn’t art. It’s a game, to amuse us for a few moments online when we should be doing something else. But absurd as it is, the idea of AI ‘art’ only takes a pervasive contemporary dream to a slightly more absurd conclusion: that of eliminating individuals from human culture.

The positive version of this dream imagines that we could promote equality by minimising the role of specific, individual contributions to human society. You see versions of this in the widespread academic effort, for some decades now, to downplay the study of ‘great’ individuals in favour of mass movements or widespread sociocultural phenomena.

Well-established in disciplines such as history or literature, this has percolated even as far as the quintessential study of great individuals, the ‘Grand Strategy’ course at Yale. Here, the course director Professor Beverley Gage prompted debate last year when she shifted the course curriculum away from individual political actors toward grassroots activism and civil rights.

We see same the effort to de-emphasise leadership in favour of the collective in the rise of technocratic forms of government. This is often well-meant: this study shows populations support technocracy in proportion to how incompetent their elected government is perceived to be. In other words, the more disillusioned we grow with the ability of our elected leaders to govern, the more longingly we look to ‘neutral’, depoliticised ways of running our affairs.

And confidence in human leadership is waning across the board. Angry populists condemn the ruling class as out of touch; critics decry the current government as incompetent; others dismiss the electorate as ignorant or racist. The problem, across the board, is: us.

Faced with our manifestly disappointing powers of human self-governance, the dream of eliminating leadership can’t but seem appealing. And it’s in this light that we should view Tuesday’s vote by our MPs, to entrench vaccine passes in British domestic life.

This has been presented as a measure to control Covid — or, as George Osborne put it, a matter of “citizenship”. But it’s worth bearing in mind that emergency powers have a way of sticking around. Anti-terror measures enacted in America in the wake of 9/11 massively expanded US surveillance and are still in force. Once the infrastructure and social norms are in place for digital ID, they are unlikely to go away again — especially given the Government has already signalled a desire to introduce such a scheme.

From some perspectives, digital ID is an obvious and sensible move. In a 2020 video, the aerospace and weapons manufacturer Thales offers an enticing picture of how much easier many ordinary interactions could become with a ‘Digital ID Wallet’. Controlled from a smartphone by each individual user, Thales imagines this centralising a user’s personal data, eliminating the messy business of individual assessment and human error from ID checks and record-keeping across all areas of life.

The power of such tools is evident, as is their appeal from a governance perspective. But once they’re in place, the scope is infinite to extend them beyond simply logging driving licence records.

Once identities are held digitally, our behaviour can be tracked — and ‘nudged’ — digitally as well. And our elites, habituated by university courses that highlight the importance of large-scale social and cultural patterns over the specifics of individual experience, already look eagerly toward the potential offered by AI pattern recognition. But machine learning systems are only as good as their inputs. And pattern recognition isn’t the same thing as interpretation.

In an AI ‘art’ generator, this has little impact beyond creating creepy kitten-images. But in contexts that affect people’s lives more directly, machine learning has more serious implications. Imagine, for example, that we embraced a ‘prevention’ oriented public health system, using citizen data collected around a Digital ID Wallet. This isn’t so far-fetched: a data-driven pilot scheme aimed at tackling obesity via measures including tracking scheme members’ shopping history was launched earlier this year.

And while the existing pilot scheme focuses on rewards, a unified ID would make it easy to implement sanctions too. The Health Pass now required for entry into bars, clubs or venues to combat the spread of Covid-19 could without great difficulty be extended to other behaviours or linked with purchase history. What this change means is the arrival, likely for good, of a mode of digital-era governance where for the first-time participation in public life can be made conditional on ‘healthy’ behaviours.

The mutant kitten is a vivid illustration of what happens when you task a computer with doing something human, without the capacity to understand what humans actually care about. Applied to real lives, the blind brilliant-idiot quality of AI pattern recognition is already causing miscarriages of justice.

Now imagine extending that deep into your life: having your Health Pass suspended because you’ve bought too many units of alcohol this week, perhaps, meaning you can’t access essential services. Never mind that you were shopping for an event at your local social club. The computer sees a pattern. And unlike for a human, for machine intelligence there’s no difference between pattern recognition and meaning.

The slow collapse of social meaning into computer-legible pattern is reshaping us into a post-political, post-individual human order — one resisted most vigorously, to date, by conservatives. It was chiefly conservative politicians and voters who framed Brexit as pushback against technocracy. At Yale, conservative donors including Henry Kissinger forced Professor Gage to resign earlier this year. And on Tuesday 98 Tories — nearly a third of elected Conservative MPs — rebelled on Covid passes. Boris owes his victory to Labour Party support, and is probably a dead man walking within his own party now.

But Boris’s loss of face in his own party is one fraction of a far more deadly bleeding of authority: our downward spiral of disintegrating trust in human government full stop. As long as this continues, the temptation will persist to solve the crisis of authority with ever deeper rule by AI: the only compromise option left when we can’t agree on which human or humans should be in charge.

Fittingly, while writing this, I stumbled on another, current digital art project titled Headless. This one doesn’t depict the impersonal nature of finance — it’s trying to harness decentralised digital technology to human ends, by embracing it as an engine of creativity.

I hope its creators are right to think this can be done. For we’ve just taken another step closer to a world ruled by machines; machines that are brilliant at detecting patterns, but idiots when it comes to understanding what those patterns mean. And unless we’re able to humanise those technologies, this dawning age of digitised governance will digest the patterns of our social order and regurgitate a world of idiotic, inhuman cruelty.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

LOL. If one of the themes of this article is the danger of relying on AI to interpret and control our behavior I can offer no better example than Unherd’s moderation software. I just posted a bland comment, full of praise, devoid of any remotely objectionable words, on Giles Fraser’s article and it is currently awaiting moderation.
Perhaps whoever wrote the code for that software had a deep hatred of adverbs.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The moderation software they use is abysmal.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

did you make the correct prayers and offer a sufficient blood sacrifice to The Algodrithm ?

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yes, I’m aware of that feature but my comment went to moderation the moment I posted it so clearly the software didn’t like something.
Anyway, my comment now appears beneath Giles’s article so I guess the human moderator approved it. The spirit of Christmas is alive and well.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

A good article, as usual. Boris Johnson’s talents were limited to spotting the public wish for Brexit and delivering on paper. However, the equal danger to democracy of EU-style technocracy snd pervasive China-style AI is China-style government lying – a charge levelled against Johnson by bitter opponents but now increasingly by his allies.
Is he up to the job of keeping enemies down and finishing what he started as, like AI, he appears by the day to have no vision or integrity? Public patience is thin: he benefited from a shambolic anti-semitic clown heading Labour at the last election, a double act with a faceless Blair clone now in his shoes. The choices for their replacements are few (Truss?): they tend to be sidelined or sacked. Hopes of using power clawed back from Brussels seem to be shrinking. No parties are rising to the task, while half their members, the civil service, the EU, US, sizeable media and business try to reverse the vote. AI is but one part of the risky Dali-esque picture of twisting perceptions while sidelining electorates. Reversing so many democratic votes centred on this issue through subterfuge would not be lost on the voting public.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

A lot of the current political themes are about liberty and sovereignty. Are we free to make our own mistakes, or compelled to follow a set of rules even if we believe those rules to be mistaken.
Modern times are increasingly about laws of compulsion (‘You must…’) rather than more traditional laws of prohibition (‘You must not…’). The machine-view of the world (where we’re all cogs in administrative processes) is compulsion, compulsion, compulsion. Another piece of paper must be completed to prove compliance or the machine will break.
Compulsion takes away sovereignty. It takes away agency and independence. it creates systems of continual inspection and oversight to check the rules are being followed. Compulsion demands time and expense, and is horribly inefficient. If machines ruled the world, would you actually want to comply with their rules, or choose tolerance and live-and-let-live?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

As the picture so sharply shows, AI is Demonic, I also clicked your link to other ‘Art by AI’, and yes it is demonic too – but what really was striking is the link you give to ‘Headless’ which says the name is inspired by

“AcĂ©phale, Bataille’s infamous secret society”

And some bits on this group -man, and concept:

“L’AcĂ©phale the secret group sought to rekindle the Sacred through activities and rituals within a small hidden group. Merging occult tradition with ancient primitive religions.”

“n 1928’s The Story of the Eye, Bataille, or Lord Auch, explores his primordial obsession with the homologies between, inter alia, eyes, eggs, bull testicles, sun, orb. and Earth—homologies which create one semiotic chain that apophatically maps the Bataillean aesthetic.”

“Secondly, we can see Caillois’ figure of Lucifer in the light of further specific differences with Bataille’s activities around the College in the late 1930s. In 1936, Bataille created a review as well as a small group, or secretsociety, called AcĂ©phale, which espoused a form of tragic Nietzschean Dionysianism in the face of fascism.”

That he was involved in the Frankfurt School too – pure Satanism… ‘That Hideous Strength’ is the dystopia for the modern times – CS Lewis’s great Si-Fi Novel. One of my all time favorite books as it actually describes the coldness, and everydayness, of evil, and its constant work to take over absolutely – a necessary book, and also a good read.

Mary, what you see is a gimps of what is behind the veil, when you researched this…. I have been around a lot – a great many weird places and people, good and evil – and evil really exists, it really does. Satan’s greatest strength is his ability to make people not believe in him, and with the help of the dark side of humanity, he is getting better at it every day, wile growing greatly in strength.

Zuckerberg, Gates, Dorsey, and Musk perhaps, and millions in the dark working on AI – the strength of this movement, the sheer power of the few who drive Tech/Social Media is frighting – they are ‘off’, scary, the world is moving fast, and not well…

ken wilsher
ken wilsher
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I suspect Bataille was trying to “have a laugh” in a heavy-handed Parisian intellectual way. Humor that did not travel well!

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’m not sure I would put those four men in the same bucket. Zuckerberg and Gates are putting off the evil vibes, but Dorsey lately has a haunted/obsessed/about to go around the bend look in his eyes. He’s starting to remind me of Howard Hughes. And I like Elon Musk. Maybe I shouldn’t, but ever since he gave California the finger and moved his company to Texas, and more recently started feuding with Elizabeth Warren on Twitter, I find him amusing.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago

‘The slow collapse of social meaning into computer-legible pattern..’ – excellent insight, and very widely applicable, as anybody with a mobile phone will attest.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

And the really funny bit is the adoption, by the technocratic class, of the language of algorithmic processing. For example, EU representatives continually call the EU a “rules-based organisation” or a “rules-based order”. But as any Comp Sci person will tell you, anything “rules-based” can be coded. if your processes are all “rules-based”, why do you need a caste of very expensive apparatchiks to implement them? Algos will do just fine – will not be vulnerable to human corruptibility, and will be a damn sight cheaper.
And… very possibly this has already been happening (in secret of course). I mean, has anyone noticed how Charles Michel looks and sounds like a 44/46 chromosome clone of Martin Schulz? Is there a zygote bank somewhere deep in the bowels of the EU where they are growing these people I wonder?

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
2 years ago

If you have ever lived in a country with an unworkable bureaucracy you will realise that the problem is not who makes the rules but the very fact that the (very rigid) rules exist, and that they might or might not have any connection to reality. As a tendency to control with rigid rules every aspect of life expands, we will soon find it very uncomfortable to live normal lifes. It doesn’t matter if the rules comes from Stalin, Hitler or some AI algorithm. This is why Common Law is so powerful, it involves people and common sense. Unfortunately, the UK Government seems to be running away of its own tradition going ever for more specific and intrusive laws.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

The point being missed is that the algorithmic ecosystems are holding up a mirror to us, in fact a myriad of mirrors, and we are now seeing ourselves and our natures through prisms and distortions, in ways we never have before in human history.
That we might not like what we see, is on us.
That we allow what we see to alter us, is on us.
And it is neither here nor there.


MACBETH:
Why do you show me this?—A fourth? Start, eyes!
What, will the line stretch out to th’ crack of doom?
Another yet? A seventh? I’ll see no more


RICHARD:
A brittle glory shineth in this face.
As brittle as the glory is the face,
(He breaks the mirror.)
For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers.
Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport:
How soon my sorrow hath destroyed my face.
BOLINGBROKE:
The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed
The shadow of your face.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

Man seems, again, to have gone down something of a dead end in his search for meaning. How will he escape this time?

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

My question on “humanised” AI is will it ever be able to create an original joke?

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Yes, it already can. Search for “gpt-3 comedy” to get an idea.

Edward H
Edward H
2 years ago

I recommend that readers attempt putting well known politicians’ names into that Wombo dream app. Some truly monstrous caricatures can be created.

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago

Homo-Erectus: You’re very brilliant, but you just don’t understand our patterns
Early Homo Sapien: And?

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

*the AI urge to protect us from the genus homo, less it offend the Homo Wokians

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

I wonder how Peter Singer would comment on this article.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

The is a classic in the genre of underemployed arts graduates writing nonsense about tech. It strikes me most people have no idea how AI works, it is fairly banal. The level of understanding reminds me of the all too common attitude that a computer is crashing out of some bad will rather than the incompetence of the programmer.

AI is just a tool like a hammer, using statistics that form the most part have been known about for a century or two. Often it is overkill for what we need, most systems are just glorified crud and data logging and earlier more primative forms of tech are just as capable of dystopian ends. We can smash up a house with a hammer or we use it to help build one. If our current use of technology is tending towards dysotopic that is a reflection if the social and economic system we live in, not the tools we use.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago

Mary is one of the better tech writers here and this article had nothing to do with the mechanics of how ai works. It’s all philosophy. Your comment would be appropriate on some other articles written about AI but not this one.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

“Mary is one of the better tech writers here”

Do tech writers work for Swedish conceptual ‘artists’? Looking at her CV she’s never actually built anything but just talked and written about it a lot. The best tech writers actually have technical skills and were not glorifired former PR copywriters. I am not sure why people care so much about what journalists write when their profession is not a serious one, it is at best entertainer and at worst BS salesman.

“nothing to do with the mechanics of how ai works.”

Although the part about GANs is. A GAN is just a means for generating images, we choose the inputs and the settings. Yes, the output can be complex and unpredictable but this is no more myaterious than coding up a fractal or a physics simulation where we are uncertain of the outputs. It is just a means for people to generate images which may or may not be art depending on the user’s intent – just like Photoshop! – although they seem to resemble art more than the **** that comes out of most art colleges and academies these days.

“It’s all philosophy”

And how does this mean anything then? Philosophers have argued or disagreed for 2500 years without reaching any conclusion or resolving problems, how exactly does this guide any useful understanding of the technology or its effects?

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Alan B
Alan B
2 years ago

This is a classic in the genre of STEM graduates writing nonsense about culture. It strikes me most people have no idea that meaning is not the sort of thing which “works,” like a hammer, but rather is what comes to light when one’s hammer breaks. The level of understanding reminds me of the all too common attitude that a human being is “crashing” out of some personal dysfunction rather than the incompetence of her governing elite.
…we could go on and on like this, until neither one of us knows which one is the robot.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan B

“what comes to light when one’s hammer breaks”.

You work out what’s wrong and fix it. I’m pretty sure all this verbiage about ‘meaning’ is complete nonsense to people who actually build things with hammers. Only people who don’t understand how things work have this magical animistic understanding of everyday items.

Besides, tools don’t have meanings, people invent them by how they choose to use them

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago

Vaccine passes ae not intended to protect the vaccinated or at risk.
Nor are vaccine passes intended to protect the unvaccinated, they will be infected sooner or later anyway.
Vaccine passes are intended to slow the spread of omicron to within an estimated maximum and NHS limit.
Vaccine passes are intended to ‘encourage’ the non-vaxed to get jabbed. Nothing else will persuade them, so what can you do ?
Is it non-libertarian ? Yes
Is it the best option to avoid electoral oblivion ? Yes
Will Freddie have a conniption ? A confected one, yes.

Last edited 2 years ago by Julie Blinde
Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago
Reply to  Julie Blinde

Problem is, governments claim they are for protecting the at risk. So if they’re lying about that why wouldn’t they be lying about other things. And if they are, then doing what they say it’s a bad idea isn’t it.

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

Do you think they are maybe NOT lying abut anything ?
And what do you think is their motivation for lying ?

Last edited 2 years ago by Julie Blinde