There is a new catchphrase that some are using when it comes to talking about today’s generative AI. I am loath to repeat the phrase, but the angst in doing so is worth the chances of trying to curtail the usage going forward.
Are you ready?
You see, there are pundits, reporters, talking heads, and others that seem to be referring to generative AI as some kind of alien intelligence. For example, when discussing the widely and wildly popular generative AI app known as ChatGPT, the discussants will at times say that ChatGPT exhibits alien intelligence. This seems to be accepted by those within listening distance. The coined wording is insidiously starting to seep into our cultural norms.
No one seems to openly or overtly question whether that wording is suitable or not.
I’ll gladly take on that sorely needed chore.
When referring to generative AI, whether ChatGPT or any other such AI apps such as its successor GPT-4 or even Google’s Bard, do not state, suggest, or otherwise employ the abysmal phrase of alien intelligence.
Just say no.
Please, please, please do not make use of this dismal and hopefully soon extinguished labeling.
In today’s column, I will be explaining why “alien intelligence” is wholly unsuitable as a means of referring to any of current times Artificial Intelligence (AI). You might be tempted to think that it really doesn’t matter what words are used to describe AI. Use whatever seems catchy or comes into vogue.
The problem is that words do matter. The implications of using ill-advised and altogether misleading labels for AI are going to be endangering in a variety of ways (I’ve covered similar concerns in my ongoing coverage of AI Ethics and AI Law, see the link here). Society can be lulled into misunderstanding the limits and boundaries of what contemporary AI can accomplish. By slapping snazzy labels on AI, you sadly exacerbate an already ongoing problem of people tending to anthropomorphize AI.
In short, we already have enough issues on our hands about clarifying what AI can and cannot do. We assuredly do not need new ways to puff things up. Adding verbiage that confuses and confounds these matters is not just tomfoolery, it also distracts from serious considerations and forces those into Ethical AI and AI Law to put out yet another undue fire.
Like the game of whack-a-mole, new labels about AI keep popping up, and now is the time to smash those down and drive them into the ground. Let’s aim to keep them deeply out of sight and maybe strike a spike through their deluding heart.
Vital Background About Generative AI
Before I get into the “alien intelligence” disturbing verbiage, I’d like to make sure we are all on the same page overall about what generative AI is and also what ChatGPT and GPT-4 are all about. For my ongoing coverage of generative AI and the latest twists and turns, see the link here.
I’m sure that you already know that ChatGPT is a headline-grabbing AI app that can produce fluent essays and carry on interactive dialogues, almost as though being undertaken by human hands. A person enters a written prompt, ChatGPT responds with a few sentences or an entire essay, and the resulting encounter seems eerily as though another person is chatting with you rather than an AI application. This type of AI is classified as generative AI due to generating or producing its outputs. ChatGPT is a text-to-text generative AI app that takes text as input and produces text as output. I prefer to refer to this as text-to-essay since the outputs are usually of an essay style.
Please know though that this AI and indeed no other AI is currently sentient. Generative AI is based on a complex computational algorithm that has been data trained on text from the Internet and admittedly can do some quite impressive pattern-matching to be able to perform a mathematical mimicry of human wording and natural language. To know more about how ChatGPT works, see my explanation at the link here. If you are interested in the successor to ChatGPT, coined GPT-4, see the discussion at the link here.
There are four primary modes of being able to access or utilize ChatGPT:
- 1) Directly. Direct use of ChatGPT by logging in and using the AI app on the web
- 2) Indirectly. Indirect use of kind-of ChatGPT (actually, GPT-4) as embedded in Microsoft Bing search engine
- 3) App-to-ChatGPT. Use of some other application that connects to ChatGPT via the API (application programming interface)
- 4) ChatGPT-to-App. Now the latest or newest added use entails accessing other applications from within ChatGPT via plugins
The capability of being able to develop your own app and connect it to ChatGPT is quite significant. On top of that capability comes the addition of being able to craft plugins for ChatGPT. The use of plugins means that when people are using ChatGPT, they can potentially invoke your app easily and seamlessly.
I and others are saying that this will give rise to ChatGPT as a platform.
All manner of new apps and existing apps are going to hurriedly connect with ChatGPT. Doing so provides the interactive conversational functionality of ChatGPT. The users of your app will be impressed with the added facility. You will likely get a bevy of new users for your app. Furthermore, if you also provide an approved plugin, this means that anyone using ChatGPT can now make use of your app. This could demonstrably expand your audience of potential users.
As I’ve previously mentioned in my columns, a type of cycle takes place in these circumstances. Sometimes referred to as a network effect, see my analysis at the link here, people tend to join something that others are joining. Facebook was this way. Snapchat was this way. At first, maybe there is little or no traction. But, then, often out of the blue, people start to join. Their friends and colleagues join. Everyone wants to join.
The big get bigger. The small get starved or fail to get any oxygen in the room. That’s the gist of the network effect. It becomes a form of stickiness to the exponential growth factor. People will use what everyone else is using. This in turn makes it more alluring and adds value. The snowball is at times unstoppable and gathers erstwhile momentum.
The temptation to have your app connect with ChatGPT is through the roof. Even if you don’t create an app, you still might be thinking of encouraging your customers or clients to use ChatGPT in conjunction with your everyday services. The problem though is that if they encroach onto banned uses, their own accounts on ChatGPT will also face scrutiny and potentially be locked out by OpenAI.
As noted, generative AI is pre-trained and makes use of a complex mathematical and computational formulation that has been set up by examining patterns in written words and stories across the web. As a result of examining thousands and millions of written passages, the AI can spew out new essays and stories that are a mishmash of what was found. By adding in various probabilistic functionality, the resulting text is pretty much unique in comparison to what has been used in the training set.
There are numerous concerns about generative AI.
One crucial downside is that the essays produced by a generative-based AI app can have various falsehoods embedded, including manifestly untrue facts, facts that are misleadingly portrayed, and apparent facts that are entirely fabricated. Those fabricated aspects are often referred to as a form of AI hallucinations, a catchphrase that I disfavor but lamentedly seems to be gaining popular traction anyway (for my detailed explanation about why this is lousy and unsuitable terminology, see my coverage at the link here).
Another concern is that humans can readily take credit for a generative AI-produced essay, despite not having composed the essay themselves. You might have heard that teachers and schools are quite concerned about the emergence of generative AI apps. Students can potentially use generative AI to write their assigned essays. If a student claims that an essay was written by their own hand, there is little chance of the teacher being able to discern whether it was instead forged by generative AI. For my analysis of this student and teacher confounding facet, see my coverage at the link here and the link here.
There have been some zany outsized claims on social media about Generative AI asserting that this latest version of AI is in fact sentient AI (nope, they are wrong!). Those in AI Ethics and AI Law are notably worried about this burgeoning trend of outstretched claims. You might politely say that some people are overstating what today’s AI can do. They assume that AI has capabilities that we haven’t yet been able to achieve. That’s unfortunate. Worse still, they can allow themselves and others to get into dire situations because of an assumption that the AI will be sentient or human-like in being able to take action.
Do not anthropomorphize AI.
Doing so will get you caught in a sticky and dour reliance trap of expecting the AI to do things it is unable to perform. With that being said, the latest in generative AI is relatively impressive for what it can do. Be aware though that there are significant limitations that you ought to continually keep in mind when using any generative AI app.
One final forewarning for now.
Whatever you see or read in a generative AI response that seems to be conveyed as purely factual (dates, places, people, etc.), make sure to remain skeptical and be willing to double-check what you see.
Yes, dates can be concocted, places can be made up, and elements that we usually expect to be above reproach are all subject to suspicions. Do not believe what you read and keep a skeptical eye when examining any generative AI essays or outputs. If a generative AI app tells you that President Abraham Lincoln flew around the country in a private jet, you would undoubtedly know that this is malarky. Unfortunately, some people might not realize that jets weren’t around in his day, or they might know but fail to notice that the essay makes this brazen and outrageously false claim.
A strong dose of healthy skepticism and a persistent mindset of disbelief will be your best asset when using generative AI.
Into all of this comes a slew of AI Ethics and AI Law considerations.
There are ongoing efforts to imbue Ethical AI principles into the development and fielding of AI apps. A growing contingent of concerned and erstwhile AI ethicists are trying to ensure that efforts to devise and adopt AI takes into account a view of doing AI For Good and averting AI For Bad. Likewise, there are proposed new AI laws that are being bandied around as potential solutions to keep AI endeavors from going amok on human rights and the like. For my ongoing and extensive coverage of AI Ethics and AI Law, see the link here and the link here, just to name a few.
The development and promulgation of Ethical AI precepts are being pursued to hopefully prevent society from falling into a myriad of AI-inducing traps. For my coverage of the UN AI Ethics principles as devised and supported by nearly 200 countries via the efforts of UNESCO, see the link here. In a similar vein, new AI laws are being explored to try and keep AI on an even keel. One of the latest takes consists of a set of proposed AI Bill of Rights that the U.S. White House recently released to identify human rights in an age of AI, see the link here. It takes a village to keep AI and AI developers on a rightful path and deter the purposeful or accidental underhanded efforts that might undercut society.
I’ll be interweaving AI Ethics and AI Law related considerations into this discussion.
Where No Outer Space Alien Has Gone Before
We are ready to unpack this thorny matter.
What does “alien intelligence” even mean?
I suppose another way to voice that question is what does “alien intelligence” mean to you and what does it mean to others? The concern is that it means different things to different people. Ambiguity makes this phrase already problematic.
Here are three ways to parse the phrase:
- 1) Extraterrestrial. Alien intelligence as alluding to an extraterrestrial or outer-space alien intelligence
- 2) Extraordinary. Alien intelligence as alluding to extraordinary or out of the norm of human intelligence
- 3) Other Variations.
Allow me to elaborate.
I’ll start with the meaning that seems to arise nearly immediately.
Some have interpreted the phrase as alluding to today’s AI as exhibiting extraterrestrial intelligence. Thus, the word “alien” is being taken as signifying outer space alien. The only thing we know about aliens from other planets is that we don’t know that they exist and that there is a tremendous number of theories and conspiracy conjectures surrounding the concept (for my discussions on these out-of-bounds facets and how they have been previously tied to advancements in AI, see the link here and the link here, for example).
AI has already been portrayed in science fiction stories and movies, typically showcased as leading to the end of humankind. Generative AI has gotten a lot of attention recently possibly taking humanity on a slippery slope to an existential risk. I’ve examined various well-known quotes and comments about AI as being an existential risk that will enslave us or wipe us from the earth, see the link here.
Coupling the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence with generative AI is a topper on this cake. People are able to let their imaginations roam. Is this alien intelligence going to be favorable toward humans or be seeking to destroy humans? If the space aliens are smart enough to travel in outer space and make contact with us, they undoubtedly are smarter and further ahead of humanity, perhaps by leaps and bounds. As such, take all that speculation and assign it to today’s AI, doing so by being pushed or led in that direction by the phrasing of alien intelligence.
Yikes, what a boondoggle.
To abundantly clarify, there is no sound basis for making the connection between today’s AI and some farfetched ill-defined fictional space alien intelligence. It is wrong to do so. Stop the practice. Period, full stop.
Now that I’ve covered the extraterrestrial interpretation, you might be of the mind that nobody could reasonably be thinking that alien intelligence refers to the planets beyond Earth. Sorry to tell you that some do. It is the ambiguity involved in the phrasing.
In any case, let’s assume that not everyone will fall into that mental trap. There is an alternative interpretation that might seem slightly more palatable, though I don’t think it is a taste that we should be willing to accept overall.
An alternative viewpoint is that “alien” signifies that intelligence is extraordinary, out of the norm, and distinctive of human intelligence. You might say that AI as alien intelligence is like human intelligence but then again also unlike human intelligence. Or, you could say it the other way, specifically, that AI as alien intelligence is unlike human intelligence and yet also like human intelligence.
The gist is that we presumably seem to be unable to find an appropriate way to describe something that has a human intelligence aura and meanwhile is not quite up to par with human intelligence or maybe is partially orthogonal to human intelligence. To deal with this murky and grey area, the phrase alien intelligence tries to take that middle ground.
You are then supposed to set aside entirely the “alien” as an outer space creature and instead focus on “alien” as striding the spectrum of human intelligence. In one sense, this is handy because it might aid in distinguishing that AI resembles some elements of human intelligence but with crucial differences.
A counterargument is that any comparison of today’s AI to human intelligence is going to be misleading. The computational models and data usage of generative AI can exhibit outputs that seem to suggest human intelligence, yet we are taking quite a leap to say that it is human intelligence. It is computational and mathematical mimicry.
Many would insist this is not the same as human intelligence.
Almost every debate about AI and what AI is will inevitably and inexorably come back to what is the definition of intelligence. That is a rabbit hole. There are zillions of definitions of intelligence. You would be hard-pressed to get concurrence that one of those definitions is ostensibly the true and correct version.
This admittedly makes the term “Artificial Intelligence” reside on a shaky foundation. If we cannot agree on what intelligence is, how can we somehow agree on what an artificial instantiation of the underlying fuzzy thing is? Troubles ensue.
One perspective is to skip around being troubled by a lack of a definition and in place of a definition we are to simply assess whether something or someone showcases intelligence that we associate with humans.
The classic Turing Test exemplifies this sidestepping.
In the Turing Test, you are to compare a machine or AI to a human, doing so based on their exhibited intelligence. We might have a human hidden behind a curtain and meanwhile have a computer AI system behind another curtain. A human interrogator proceeds to ask questions of the AI and also asks questions of the human that is behind the curtain. The person asking the questions does not know beforehand which curtain hides the AI versus which hides the human.
After some sufficient range and depth of questions, the person doing the interrogation is supposed to declare which is the human and which is the AI. If the interrogator cannot discern which is which, the AI is said to have successfully passed the Turing Testing. It has essentially fooled the interrogator into believing that both are humans.
You can likely observe how this skips past the definition of intelligence. All that we are doing is a comparison of a human that presumably embodies intelligence to a machine or AI that contains some computational capabilities that exhibit the same properties as the displayed human intelligence. Be aware that there are numerous weaknesses and qualms about the Turing Test, see my in-depth coverage at the link here of the Turing Test.
Returning to the “alien” as signifying a form of intelligence that is both like and unlike human intelligence, you might feel that this use is seemingly acceptable. No harm, no foul. All that the expression is trying to do is highlight that it attains a semblance of human intelligence but you are to be forewarned that it isn’t exactly the same as human intelligence.
A difficulty is that those that hear or see the phasing of “alien intelligence” don’t know which variant or interpretation you are intending.
It could be that you are taking the sci-fi route of extraterrestrial, or that you are taking the somewhat down-to-earth route of being extraordinary or unusual. People will willy-nilly be able to take either choice.
A person that sincerely means the extraordinary kind of “alien intelligence” might be shocked to discover that others took the phrase in an outer-space manner. As such, they might try to continue using the phrase by shrugging their shoulders and waving their arms that just because dullards don’t get it, this shouldn’t stop the phase from being used and further populated.
Unfortunately, this seemingly genuine intention is also misguided.
You aren’t going to slap lipstick onto this pig. It has too much foul baggage. There also isn’t any need for the phrase, to begin with. We should stay faithful to the phrase “Artificial Intelligence”, which at least has some extensive history to it and has a fighting chance of being sensibly used (not always, of course, and new fires erupt all the time).
There are other outliers of how to interpret the phrase “alien intelligence” but those aren’t worthy of giving added attention. No need to embellish or expand on something that should not be getting air time anyway.
Words do matter.
John Locke, the noted philosopher, said this about words: “So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with.”
Trying to convey what AI is by using other words is a logical and sensible endeavor. That being the case, we ought to not use words that will make matters worse. Seeking to compact a greater understanding of AI by using the “alien” as a label is frankly atrocious.
Those that by happenstance use the emerging phrase are maybe given a cringe-oriented excuse for their lack of awareness on the matter, though they are contributing to a problem and need to tighten up their language. Those that intentionally seek to foster this emerging phrase, will hopefully take a step back and think carefully about what they are saying.
A famous unattributed rhyme that comes to mind might be generated and conveyed to those that are embracing the undesirable phrase:
- Be careful of the words you say,
- Keep them short and sweet.
- You never know, from day to day,
- Which ones you’ll have to eat.
That’s the last word on this topic, for now.