Of open AI, panic and storytelling


This photo taken on May 10, 2023 shows the latest version of a robot called Sophia being tested at Hanson Robotics, a robotics and artificial intelligence company which creates human-like robots, in Hong Kong.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Indeed, many questions about AI have been raised since ChatGPT made a flashy debut last year.
  • There are predictions that chatbots and AI could be used for good as well as for harm in future.

In 1897, the great Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad wrote a letter to his friend Robert Cunninghame Graham, on the fears he had about humans one day inventing a machine that would go rogue and one that couldn’t be switched off — setting off a terrifying clash with humans that is unprecedented in its scale and devastation.

Today many people join Conrad in conjuring up scary images of robots swooping down a town with murderous intent. Conrad wrote that, “There is — let us say — a machine. It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! — it knits.

I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider — but it goes on knitting. The infamous thing has made itself: made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions — and nothing matters”.

Conrad’s fear is now real, especially at the rate with which technology is driving the world. On November 17, Open AI, the company behind the revolutionary Chat GPT, fired its CEO Sam Altman. Less than five days later, he was reinstated as CEO. It’s alleged that Mr Altman could have disagreed with the board on the direction Artificial Intelligence (AI) is taking.

The news of Mr Altman’s firing had sent shockwaves throughout the AI world, raising trust concerns around the growing technology. Was the board or Mr Altman right? Are we on the verge of making technologies that could destroy humanity or at least their livelihoods?

Indeed, many questions about AI have been raised since ChatGPT made a flashy debut last year with people warning that chatbots and the new language models could be used for good as well as for harm or other devious reasons. Already chatbots write school essays, poems, cheat in exams and do everything in between.

For fiction writers, the increasing sophistication of AI presents endless possibilities for storytelling. This genre is science fiction (sometimes shortened to SF or sci-fi), which has been defined as “a genre of speculative fiction, which typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction can trace its roots to ancient mythology. It is related to fantasy, horror, and superhero fiction and contains many subgenres”.

Sci-fi writers have conjured up the psychic tenor of ambient doom occasioned by robots that unleash terror; marauding like charging bulls — a confrontation, a pile of bleeding limbs, some rolling around on the floor; the robot beating people up and even killing them in the streets, totally out of control. This is the AI apocalypse. This would only be in the fertile imagination of science fiction writers except that modern development in AI is making it a possible reality each passing day.

One of the most terrifying short stories on AI apocalypse is The Last Human by Eric Steven Johnson. The story follows, “the life of the last human survivor of the second robot apocalypse. Jay has been wandering aimlessly for ages and passes the time by reflecting on the better days which, sadly, were his days spent in servitude to the robot overlords. This is the story of Jay's struggle to survive with only himself to rely on”. Jay must have walked in an uninhabitable moonscape — neighbourhoods blasted, scorched and erased.

This idea of hostile takeover by AI has been the bane of Hollywood for a long time. The famous movie The Terminator is a science fiction action film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, a cybernetic assassin (cyborg) sent to save mankind from extinction by Skynet, a hostile artificial intelligence.

Whether one day robots will roam the streets and turn against us or not, writers have fodder for their works. Technology has its beauty even if it is sometimes offered in a context of danger. Writers can come up with narratives on how technology is helping humans or swing to the dark side and give us tales of robots rounding up people and slapping them in the streets.

For readers, science fiction can stimulate imagination, creativity, and problem-solving. Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, was famously inspired by science fiction that has reportedly shaped his companies. He even names some of his products after ones found in the science fiction books he has read. Science fiction can also encourage curiosity and interest in the world around us.

This is very important especially for children so they can be curious about the world and explore it for discovery. It’s encouraging that writers are churning out more books on AI in the era of ChatGPT. That’s the way to go.

The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]