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Misplaced fears of an ‘evil’ ChatGPT obscure the real harm being done

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O n 14 February, Kevin Roose, the New York Times tech columnist, had a two-hour conversation with Bing, Microsoft’s ChatGPT-enhanced search engine.

He emerged from the experience an apparently changed man, because the chatbot had told him, among other things, that it would like to be human, that it harboured destructive desires and was in love with him.The transcript of the conversation, together with Roose’s appearance on the paper’s The Daily podcast, immediately ratcheted up the moral panic already raging about the implications of large language models (LLMs) such as GPT-3.5 (which apparently underpins Bing) and other “generative AI” tools that are now loose in the world.

These are variously seen as chronically untrustworthy artefacts, as examples of technology that is out of control or as precursors of so-called artificial general intelligence (AGI) – ie human-level intelligence – and therefore posing an existential threat to humanity.Accompanying this hysteria is a new gold rush, as venture capitalists and other investors strive to get in on the action.

It seems that all that money is burning holes in very deep pockets. Mercifully, this has its comical sides. It suggests, for example, that chatbots and LLMs have replaced crypto and web 3.0 as the next big thing, which in turn confirms that the tech industry collectively has the attention span of a newt.The strangest thing of all, though, is that the pandemonium has been sparked by what one of its leading researchers called “stochastic parrots” – by which she means that LLM-powered chatbots are machines that continuously predict which word is statistically most likely to follow the previous one.

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