An Encounter With ChatGPT & Some Eerie Thoughts On Democracy

Here’s an account of my chance encounter with ChatGPT, an Artificial Intelligence-based language processing tool, on the internet and engagement with it for around 10 minutes.

My input: Write an essay on women empowerment in 200 words.

Bingo! It was there on my screen in five seconds. Four paragraphs of well-organised text in flawless English, capturing the essence of the topic.

Next input: Write an essay on women empowerment in 600 words.

Lo! It was ready before I was done with a sip of tea.

Next: Write a poem on flowers.

No disappointment. It arrived quickly; four stanzas of rhyming lines conveying the beauty of flowers in competent poetry.

Next: Write a poem on flowers in ABAB rhyming scheme.

It was there in no time, near perfect with the first and third lines ending with rhyming words and the second and fourth following a similar pattern.

The chatbot failed to provide a poem on women empowerment up to satisfaction, though.

The experience unleashed a string of thoughts, some loaded with a sense of foreboding. Technology surely had moved far beyond auto prompt for words on mobile phones. It can now offer complete texts on any topic collating information from several spaces online in a jiffy. (The chatbot in discussion even prepared a news report in 250 words based on scant input – a bus accident on National Highway to Cuttack on Monday – with the reporting format almost in place) If ChatGPT and similar bots can produce reports, articles, analyses and whatever content required for a newspaper to perfection, would professional journalists like me be required anymore? The thought struck immediately.

Friends familiar with AI assert that the language tool would achieve perfection in no later than two years. OpenAI, creator of ChatGPT, is furiously at work and they may be ready for the market soon. The competition is also equally geared up with its own tools of similar nature. And, they are convinced not only the jobs of journalists but also that of doctors, engineers and whatever job that requires specialised skill is under serious threat.

Experts believe a coalition of AI, robotics and data science may leave most human beings redundant in the job space. Robots may take over manual work, AI may take over intellectual jobs and data analytics may make all human behaviour predictable, hence manipulable. The coalition will easily surpass real intelligence and deliver efficiency like no human possibly can. Laboratories are at work at manic speed, add experts, and it’s only a matter of time – a simple question of when, not if or whether – machines replaced humans.

The looming threat from technology has not dawned on public imagination yet, neither have the potential consequences – social, economic, cultural and political – of the leaps of innovation in the digital age. Since this series in Odishabytes is about democracy and politics, we shall dwell on both a bit more.

In his book Future Politics, Jamie Susskind talks about consequences of technology in politics. He notes: “…the relentless advances in science and technology are set to transform the way we live together, with consequences for politics that are profound and frightening in equal measure. We are not yet ready – intellectually, philosophically or morally – for the world we are creating. In the next few decades, old ways of thinking that have served us well for centuries, even thousands of years, will be called into question. New debates, controversies, movements and ideologies will come to the fore. Some of our most deeply held assumptions will be revised or abandoned altogether…”

Politics so far in human history, Susskind suggests, sustained on relative stability in the economic and social spheres over centuries. The lack of change or the slowness of it made it easy to predict the future 50 years or more with some accuracy. Political theories developed in the same milieu – the stable block of the past. Not so anymore. Changes are so mind-boggling and life-changing in the digital age that old theories, ideas, responses and solutions would fail to capture them in any framework. Since technology impacts the economy directly, which in turn affects and alters social equations, political response to these is required to be in tandem. It’s missing so far. Because old political ideas just fail to grasp the emerging reality and the threat thereof.

Writes Susskind: “Those who control these technologies will increasingly control the rest of us. They will have power, meaning they will have a stable and wide-ranging capacity to get us do things of significance that we wouldn’t otherwise do. Increasingly, they will set the limits of our liberty, decreeing what may be done and what is forbidden. They’ll determine the future of democracy, causing it to flourish or decay. And their algorithms will decide vital questions of social justice, allocating social goods and sorting us into hierarchies of status and esteem…The upshot is that political authorities -generally states-will have more instruments of control at their disposal than ever before, and big tech firms will also come to enjoy power on a scale that dwarfs any other economic entity in modern times. ..To cope with these new challenges, we’ll need a radical upgrade of our political ideas…”

Change is upon us already. Data science has made elections of today vastly different from elections earlier. Voters can be turned into predictable entities like buyers of consumer goods and manipulated to behave in a certain way. We have seen data power at work in the US and British elections, and in India too. The science is going to be more precise in course of time, and thus more eerie in what it can achieve. Whoever controls data power would control political power, by extension democracy, too. However, right now political players see technology as only an instrument with a limited purpose – swaying the electorate. They have not come out of old ideas yet.The full engagement is yet to play out.

But the bigger concern is the dominance of machines and their impact on lives as we know. What if they take over the jobs of humans on a large scale? What if big corporate entities with ownership of the new technology and deep pockets control politicians, by extension politics? We know big money drives politics all over the world. What if big money aligns with technology to control us directly? The combo may redefine the concept of rights and liberty, to the detriment of the common people whom democracies are supposed to serve. Political participation, as observed in the earlier articles in this series, is already out of the reach of ordinary people. It might get worse.

Surely we need new ideas for the future. Old ideas just don’t measure up to the new challenges. ChatGPT may serve us well, taking care of our immediate needs, but without fresh thinking to contain its possible bad consequences we might be inviting trouble.

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

Comments are closed.