The Danger of Hapsburg AI

Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been writing a manifesto of sorts about how writers and other creatives should approach AI. One of the primary things that I’ve been coming back to is the idea that every must have a human in the loop. Just as self-driving trucks will most likely have a human driver – if only to prevent the mass firing and eventual radicalization of literally 3.5 million truck drivers globally – any company using AI needs a head of content or a designer to control the tools. Just as bosses pay for Figma and Adobe’s Creative Suite, AI tools are just that: tools.

They need operators.

What will happen if we don’t find these operators? Hapsburg AI, which, according to Jathan Sadowski, is “a system that is so heavily trained on the outputs of other generative AI’s that it becomes an inbred mutant, likely with exaggerated, grotesque features. It joins the lineage of Potemkin AI.”

In short, the AI will eat so much AI-generated content that it will choke and turn out worse and worse product. Why?

Because Generative AI is built on theft. We know this but many refuse to accept it. Further, there is no sane or programmatic way to protect us from purely AI generated content. While obvious examples might ring a few bells, most GPT4 stuff is clean enough to fool humans, let alone Google. As Ed Zitron writes:

Generative AI also naturally aligns with the toxic incentives created by the largest platforms. Google’s algorithmic catering to the Search Engine Optimization industry naturally benefits those who can spin up large amounts of “relevant” content rather than content created by humans. While Google has claimed that their upcoming “core” update will help promote “content for people and not to rank in search engines,” it’s made this promise before, and I severely doubt anything meaningfully changes. After all, Google makes up more than 85% of all search traffic and pays Apple billions a year to make Google search the default on Apple devices.

And because these platforms were built to reward scale and volume far more often than quality, AI naturally rewards those who can find the spammiest ways to manipulate the algorithm. 404 Media reports that spammers are making thousands of dollars from TikTok’s creator program by making “faceless reels” where AI-generated voices talk over spliced-together videos ripped from YouTube, and a cottage industry of automation gurus are cashing in by helping others flood Facebook, TikTok and Instagram with low-effort videos that are irresistible to algorithms.

If this slow “enshittification” keeps going, especially on a corporate level, everything will change for the worse. Communication will be broken, trust will erode, dogs and cats will live together. I’m only one-third joking.

And it’s already happening. Amazon is limiting authors to uploading three new books a day. Etsy is being overrun with AI-generated garbage. And you are reading articles about cooking and the like that have all the intellectual nutrients of Golden Grahams. Even Sci-Fi isn’t safe.

I’m not here to throw a sabot into the automatic loom. I’m here to bring some sense to this strange time in which we’re living. But it’s time to stand up and fight against the blind acceptance of GenAI as a replacement for a good writer, journalist, marketer, PR person, or even artist. I’m so adamant about this that I’m going to eschew AI-generated art for my posts.

Pete and I want AI to work.

It has to.

But it can’t if we keep treating AI like something more than a tool. And it starts with telling the humans who hire us that we are operators, not victims.

I need your input for the Centaur Manifesto

Pete and I are working on a set of rules, a manifesto as it were, about AI and writing. We want to publish it as a something akin to the original Cluetrain Manifesto. It will contain a series of sections about how to ethically use AI, AI-generated art, and what AI companies need to remember when scouring the Internet for data. In short, we creatives need to plant our flag and take back control of this runaway technology.

We’d love your help. If you’d like to add a thought or two, please head over to this open Google Doc. It can me an immutable law, a rant, or even how you use AI in your own writing. Imagine you’re going to use this to teach future journalists and writers how to do their jobs in this changing environment.

Course Alert

For those with busy schedules we offer a one-hour Beginning AI for Marketers, PR, and Journalists (March 21): a crash course meant to rapidly bring novices up to speed on using generative tools. Even if you think you know the basics of ChatGPT and other chatbots already, this class will improve your use of it with a focus on advanced prompting techniques, underutilized features, and a set of go-to tools for speeding up work.


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