“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Published: July 9, 2024

By Jim Lichtman
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Last week’s poetic verse, “Freedom’s Speech,” was authored by an AI program.

With the 4th of July approaching, I wanted something special, something resonant enough to revive a nation’s faith in itself. At the same time, I’ve been crafting a piece on AI. I decided to merge both themes to showcase how far AI has come and to highlight the ethical decisions that lie ahead.

I recalled Norman Rockwell’s evocative portrayals of American life, a regular feature on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. “Saying Grace” captured familial prayer, while “The Problem We All Live With” poignantly addressed segregation. Rockwell’s “Golden Rule” celebrated diversity and tolerance.

While Rockwell created masterful illustrations, his true genius was transforming paint into profound narratives.

I remembered Rockwell’s, “Freedom of Speech,” and thought it was ideal for the 4th. So, I asked AI, “Write me a poem about Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom of Speech’ and the importance of respect.”

The program generated a four-line, six-stanza poem in 10 seconds (I timed it). And its ability to recognize and vividly describe the painting was astonishing:

“a bustling hall… A man stands firm, his gaze up high… rugged hands and weathered face.”

And this highlighted the power of respect, making my point profoundly solemn: “It paints respect, a truth we share, In every glance, a silent prayer.”

In the painting, many hold the town’s “annual report,” yet AI discerned Rockwell’s comparison of a town hall meeting to a church service, and indeed, through the man’s gesture it certainly looks like his hand is resting on the back of a pew, turning the speech into a homily.

“Respect must guide both voice and mind” urges us to think before we speak, echoing my parents’ teachings.

Most strikingly,

“For freedom flourishes, not in force, But in respect, its true discourse. In Rockwell’s art, a lesson clear, To speak with grace, to truly hear.”

Freedom entails speaking kindly and listen dutifully to all opinions.

“So let us learn from that bold scene, To honor views, both harsh and keen. For in respect, our freedoms grow, A truth that Rockwell’s strokes bestow.”

On my best day, I couldn’t craft a poem as substantial and moving. (My only contribution was the title.)

Yet, in my experience thus far, the AI program lacks a distinct voice. While it evokes emotion in poetry, its standard text comes off flat and academic sounding. It conveys facts but lacks uniqueness in style.

In science fiction, AI is often cast as a villain. HAL’s calm, Zen-like voice in “2001: A Space Odyssey” underscores its malevolence, blindsiding astronauts: murdering Poole, and attempting to do so to Bowman.

“HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it. I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

Bowman: HAL, I won’t argue with you anymore! Open the doors!

HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.”

Today’s technology mirrors HAL more closely than we realize. Its intelligence is growing exponentially, showing tremendous promise in everything from diagnosing diseases to creating vaccines, and from revolutionizing agriculture to enhancing cybersecurity. The list of its capabilities is expanding daily.

However, unchecked AI can propagate bias, discrimination, and misinformation, crafting deepfake videos to distort reality for political or cultural agendas, raising profound ethical concerns.

Last year, The New York Times reported on over 1,000 technology leaders who wrote an open letter urging a pause in advanced AI system development, fearing profound societal risks.

“‘These things are shaping our world,’ said Gary Marcus, an entrepreneur and academic who has long complained of flaws in AI systems, in an interview. ‘We have a perfect storm of corporate irresponsibility, widespread adoption, lack of regulation and a huge number of unknowns.’”

“Humanity can enjoy a flourishing future with AI,” the letter concluded. “Having succeeded in creating powerful AI systems, we can now enjoy an ‘AI summer’ in which we reap the rewards, engineer these systems for the clear benefit of all, and give society a chance to adapt.”

Nevertheless, we’ve witnessed how easily social media can be manipulated to disseminate millions of false and misleading information with previously unimaginable consequences. If we fail to grasp the genuine threats posed by Artificial Intelligence today, how long will it be before a HAL 10 million informs us, ‘I’m sorry humanity, I’m afraid you cannot do that’?”

To be continued.

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