AI: the not-so-good parts

Mon Jan 15 2024

Hey, if you normally read the written form of my talks, I highly suggest watching or listening to the video for this one. The topic I'm covering is something I'm quite passionate about and I don't think that my tone is conveyed in text the same way it is in voice. If the version on XeDN doesn't load for you for whatever reason, please contact me with the output of cdn.xeiaso.net/cgi-cdn/wtf and I will figure out what is wrong so I can fix it.

You can find the YouTube version of this talk here.

Want to watch this in your video player of choice? Take this:
https://cdn.xeiaso.net/file/christine-static/talks/2024/ai-ethics/index.m3u8

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Hi, I'm Xe Iaso and before we get started, I want to start by talking about what this talk is and is not. This talk isn't going to be the kind of high signal AI research that I'd really love to be giving right now. This talk is about actions and consequences.

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What impacts will our projects have on the real world where people have to take objects like this and exchange them for food and shelter?

I'm sorry to say that this talk is going to be a bit of a wet blanket. I'm so sorry for Yacine because all that stuff with local AI inference in browsers was really cool. And that dogfooding of dingboard for a presentation about how dingboard works was cool as hell.

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All the best things in life come with disclaimers, as I'm sure you know, and these words are my own. I'm not speaking on behalf of my employer, past employers, or if you're watching the recording and I've changed employers, any future employers. I am speaking for myself, not other people.

Before we get into this, let's cover my background, some stuff about me, what I do, and all this AI stuff has benefited and harmed me personally. As Hai [the organizer of the AI meetup that asked me to speak there] mentioned, I'm a somewhat avid blogger. I've only got like 400 articles or something. I write for the love of writing and I've got like maybe four 3D printed save icons of text available on my blog for anyone to learn with any topic from like programming, spirituality, semiotics, AI, etc. My writing is loved by the developer community and it's the reason why I get hired.

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Regardless of anything I say in this talk, please make a blog, document what you've learned, document what works, document what fails, just get out there and write. You'll get good at it, just keep at it. This is genuine advice.

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However, as a reward for making my blog a high-quality thing, it's part of the ChatGPT training dataset. Somewhere in some data center, my blog's information is sitting there tokenized, waiting to get massaged into floating point weights by unfeeling automatons used to make unimaginable amounts of money that I will never see a penny of. This is the punishment I get for pouring the heart, soul and love into my craft as a blogger.

I get turned into ChatGPT.

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Now in our system of law, things are generally lawful unless there's some law or precedent that says it's not. At the time of me speaking this, we aren't sure if training AI models on copyrighted data is fair use or not. The courts and lawmakers need to battle this out (if they'll be allowed to because there is a lot of money behind the AI industry right now).

This is technology that is so new, it's making Bitcoin look like Stone Age, 8-bit computing back when you couldn't count above 255 without major hacks.

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And mind you, I'm just one blogger. I'm just one person. I don't have that big of a platform, all things considered. Sure in the genre of technology bloggers, I'm probably fairly high up there, but I'm not like front page on New York Times big. I'm just a person who likes talking about computers and how they should work. I'm just someone that gazed into the void too much and now people to pay me to gaze into the damn void.

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So how do we understand all this?

How do we figure out how to peel back all the layers of terminology bullshit that keep us from having a clear understanding of what people are even saying?

If we take all the drama and interplay involved in our society, we can boil it down to two basic things, actions and consequences. Actions are the things that we do and consequences are the things that result.

So let's say you cut a tree down to make a fire, but that tree was used by animals to shelter them from the winter and now those animals have a harder time finding shelter in the winter.

You take actions and something or someone else has to deal with the consequences.

Most of the time our actions serve to make us better off and shield us from the consequences. We see this happen with that tree that got cut down. We will see this happen with ChatGPT and we will keep seeing this happen time immemorial as society keeps repeating.

As exciting as all of this AI technology is, as a science fiction writer, I can't help but see the same actions and consequences and analyses for how we're using it today.

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Now your pitchforks can go down, I see you out there, you holding them up, I'm not trying to be a contrarian or decry AI as wrongthink. I've been using AI for my own stuff and I genuinely think that there's a lot of really exciting things here.

I'm mostly worried about how the existing powers that be are going to use this surplus of cheap labor and have those actions have massive consequences on us all.

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One of the things I'm trying to get across here is not all "Capitalism bad! Let's get back the bread lines, baby!" There's plenty of places to see those arguments and I don't want this to be one of those. I more want to inspire you to see what the consequences of your actions with AI stuff could be so that we can make the world a more equitable place.

Of course, this is made even more fun by the concept of unforeseen consequences or downstream consequences that you couldn't have possibly seen coming when you were experimenting with things.

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As an example, for a long time people thought swans were white. Swans became symbols of literary purity or something like that and it was so common that there was an English idiom of a black swan being an impossible thing.

As this photo proves, swans can be black.

And now the term "black swan event" describes something that should have been obvious in hindsight but something that we couldn't possibly have foreseen at the time.

(Begin sarcastic tone)

Just like that unmentionable-on-YouTube viral pandemic that happened a few years ago that our society will never really recover from! Scientists were warning us for years that we'd be totally screwed by a viral pandemic but no, we didn't take them seriously.

(End sarcastic tone)

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Whenever anyone takes actions and there are consequences or impacts, you can usually model them as on yourself, your friends or the world at large. I haven't found a good way to model the impact risk of a given field very well, but I like triangles so I made this triangle called the impact triangle to show what all of the factors in the computer science industry are.

In terms of access, anybody can become good at coding and start working at a company or creating a company to solve a problem that they have in their lives. I'm pretty sure that this basic thing, the computer industry is open access to anybody is basically why everybody in this room is here today.

Personally, I'm a college dropout.

Without the industry allowing just about anyone to walk in the door and start being successful, yeah, I'd still be in the Seattle area probably working minimum wage at a fast food place. I wouldn't be able to dream of immigrating to Canada and I probably would have never met my husband who is so thankfully recording this for me.

There's also no professional certification or license required to practice computer science or software development or whatever we call ourselves now. And basically anybody off the street without certification can make an impact on the world scale if they get lucky.

And then in terms of limits, our industry measures results in small units of times like individual financial quarters. In aggregate, our industry only cares about what we do to make the capitalism line go up for next quarter and there's no ethical or professional guidelines that prevent people from making bad things or even defining what good and bad is in the first place. In an ideal world, the thought is that the market should sort everything out and realistically, with the GDPR and the like, there are some laws that enable, that force people to comply but as long as you have good lawyers, you can get away with killing murder.

For most other professions in the job market, our industry looks incredibly reckless. Like, accountants need to be licensed and pass certifications. If you want to call yourself a surgeon, you need to have surgery practice, you need to have a license in surgery, and you need to keep yourself up with the profession.

We don't have such barriers to entry.

As an example of this, consider Facebook. They have a billion users. That is nine significant figures, a billion with a B as in bat. When they made Facebook, the thought was that they could make everybody better by reducing the social distance and that could make everybody like happier and live more fulfilled lives.

An unimaginable amount of photos, video and text posts are made to Facebook every day. Some measurable fraction of these violate Facebook's community guidelines and are full at the very least and are fully illegal at the most. Many trivial cases can be handled by machine learning algorithms but there's always that bit that needs to be judged by a human.

Speaking as a recovering IRC op, content moderation is impossible at small scales and the level of impossibility only grows as the number of people involved in a thing grows. I am fairly certain that it is like actually entirely impossible to moderate Facebook at this point because there's just too many people. You have to have some machine algorithm in there at some point and there are going to be things that the algorithm can't handle.

So then you go and you use humans to rate that.

You contract out a company who very wisely decides to subcontract that out because they don't have to deal with the fallout and finally it ends up on the desks of people that are tortured day and night by the things they are forced to witness to make rent.

For the action of creating Facebook and all of the systems that let Mark Zuckerberg make a bunker on Hawaii, raise his own cattle, make his own beer, and smoke those meats, he doesn't have to see those images and things that the content moderators have to see.

He just lays back and watches his bank account number go up and maybe does CEO things if he has to.

The human cost is totally discounted from the equation because the only limit is what makes the capitalism line go up. The people doing the actions almost never see the consequences because the CEO of Uber never got his job replaced by an Uber driver. The CEO of Google never suffered the algorithm locking him out of his entire digital life for good with no way to get it all back. And the people doing the actions and making the decisions are not affected by any of the consequences, foreseen or unforeseen.

The last time I spoke here, I spoke about a work of satire called Automuse. Automuse is a tool that uses large language models to recreate the normal novel writing process using large language models and a good dose of stochastic randomness to make some amusing outputs.

When I made it, I really just wanted to throw ink to the canvas to see what would happen, then write a satirical scientific paper.

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To my horror, I won the hackathon with a shitpost about the publishing industry that was inspired my fear of what could happen if things like Automuse were more widespread.

When I gave my talk at the hackathon, I had a five minute slot and there was something that I had on my script that I cut out as I was speaking.

Not sure why I did, it just felt right at the time.

The part that I left out was inspired by this quote from the philosopher SammyClassicSonicFan:

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When will you learn? When will you learn that your actions have consequences?

I made Automuse precisely because I understand how impractical such a thing is. The output quality of Automuse will never compare to what a human can write no matter what large language model you throw at it.

Okay, yes. I did my research, there's actually a rather large market for low quality pleasure reading that something like Automuse could fill. There's a surprisingly large number of people that enjoy reading formulaic things about good winning out over evil or old people reading romance novels to feel the passion of being young again or whatever. Not to mention doing something like that as a company would leave me an excellent moat because most AI companies want to focus on the high quality super output and here I am, the trash vendor going in, yeah, I'd basically be invincible.

But I don't know if I could live with myself if I turned Automuse into a product.

When I made Automuse, I knew that this was a potentially high impact thing, so I crippled it.

I made it difficult for anyone to use, even me.

I made it rely on a private NPM dependency that is on a server that only I have the API token to and it just so happens to be the thing that generates random plots.

I also made it in a way that requires massive human intervention and filtering in order to get decent results and every so often I get a message from somebody that asks me:

> Hey, how can I set up Automuse on my stuff?

And they're surprised when I quote them a five figure number to get them to go away. And some are even angry and curse me out because a person making open source software on the internet would want to be paid for their time.

I can't understand that actually.

But above all, the reason why I really don't want to productize it or make it available for mass consumption in any form is the problem of book spam. Automuse would make the problem of book spam worse.

The Book Spam problem is where people upload nonsense to the Kindle store and make boatloads of money doing it. This problem has been accelerated by ChatGPT and is getting to the point where Amazon's book vending thing actually had to implement rate limits for uploading books.

I don't think I could live with myself if I made and released an easy to use product that made that problem worse.

It's bad enough that whenever I get around to finishing my novel Spellblade (I couldn't find the cover I commissioned, so I just put the name on the slide), I'm almost certainly just going to release it on itch.io or to my patrons for very cheap. In theory, the Kindle store would be the best place for that kind of high signal original fiction but I just don't want it to get flooded out in a wave of AI generated mushroom foraging books.

I don't think that anyone at OpenAI anticipated that people would use ChatGPT to make the book spam problem worse. I have a friend that works there and generally from what I've seen, the research side of OpenAI really has their head screwed on the right way.

The problem is the capitalism side of OpenAI getting that sweet, sweet return to an investment by making a product that nobody else can provide and then charging for the output.

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Above all, the part that really confuses me is why we're automating away art and writing instead of like snow blowing or something actually useful. There's a subtle part of me that's really concerned for the future of our industry and I really think we need to be aware of it before it all bites us and like getting rid of everybody that has aesthetic knowledge really seems like a bad idea for an industry that focuses so much on design.

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With the Industrial Revolution came factories. Factories allowed us to produce objects on scales like never before. Raw materials go in at one end, human labor goes in the middle, finished products come out the end. This has allowed us to become the kind of species we are today. You can circumnavigate the globe in 100 hours while playing a contrived game show about travel. You can head to an entirely different continent in like what, 12 hours and this has led us to discoveries that have made us healthier, lived longer lives and overall it's been a boon for the human race.

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However, this is a modern assembly line for cars. Look what you don't see here, people. All of those robot arms and the like represent jobs that were done by humans, operating the crane to lower the truck body onto the chassis, all of that stuff. With every new model year there's more automation at play and less room for human jobs.

Sure, we can make more cars per hour but like every job that's not done by a human is another family that can't make rent. It's another child that can't grow up and you know actually cure cancer or something. And I just feel like it's another way for the ownership class to scrape more off the top.

With that in mind, I want you to consider this:

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These are our factories, the open office environment. Instead of wool or wood or water as input, we have user stories, electricity and coffee. Many of the companies out there are really just assembly lines for code features or Kubernetes configurations. I think the ultimate dream of this lies in the idea of the T-shaped developer that I've seen many management people talk about when they're trying to reorganize their companies.

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The core idea of the T-shaped developer is that you have really good competency in one field and enough broad knowledge in other fields that you can basically be put anywhere in a project and be useful. This is why you see things like ephemeral teams or decrees from on high that thou must write in JavaScript for all things.

And in theory, it makes it a lot easier to move people around and place them wherever the company needs in order to make the process more adaptable to the circumstances. Not to mention, if everyone's just a T-shaped developer, that makes it really easy to get people off of the street and into the job in days so you don't have to spend the months training them on how you messed up Jenkins this time.

Ever notice that every job opportunity is only for senior roles?

This is why.

Usually by the time you convince companies to give you a title that starts with the word "Senior", you've already been molded into a T-shaped engineer and you can slot in just about anywhere.

This is our assembly line, created in the fear that if we don't do this, the wrong line will trend in the wrong way and investors won't give us as much money as freely.

Like, okay, I realize I'm doing some doom and gloom stuff here.

It's probably going to be a while until AI is actually able to replace our jobs. Right now, there isn't a magic button that product teams can use to "just implement that feature" based on the textual description. That's probably a long ways off and it'll probably require a different fundamental architecture than attention window transformer models.

But with that in mind, there's a segment of people that already have the magic "just implement it" button today:

Artists.

Stable diffusion, mid-journey, and Dall-E 3 have gotten to the point where the output is not just good.

It's good enough.

For the vast majority of people, as long as there's nothing obviously wrong with the hands, you won't be able to tell an image that is AI generated.

However, artists can tell instantly when you have an AI generated illustration.

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Just look at this one I used earlier in this talk. It's so bad. Look at the stem on that flower. That is not how stems work. The brush at the bottom is just blending into the easel in ways that physically separate objects don't work. The flower that the robot is holding is inconsistent. It looks like the light is coming from both forward and backward at the same time. The antennae are melting into the shoulders of the robot.

It's totally passable at first glance.

I'm pretty sure that before I mentioned all those stuff and put all the arrows on the slide, you wouldn't have seen any of it. But when you start critically analyzing it, it just falls to pieces.

I guess the better question here is why would you want to use an AI generated image for something?

One of the big places you want to use an AI image is for the cover image on your blog post because we've come to expect that blog posts need cover images for some reason.

There's more desire for people to have cheap filler art that meets a certain criteria than there are artists willing to work for unrealistically low prices with incredibly quick turnaround times. Art is everywhere and yet it's commoditized so much that it's worthless in a day and age where rent and food prices keep going up.

So we end up with something like this:

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You get an AI generated of assembly line of robots painting flowers.

This is really why I didn't want to develop Automuse into a company. I just fear that action would have too many consequences and my friends and fellow artists would suffer. This is why I did so much detailed math about how much it would cost per word, how the quality would be seen in the market, and what impact such a technology would have if it churned out hundreds of books per hour.

Outside of the systems we live in, yeah, this AI stuff is great. It's fantastic tech that allows us to do any number of things we couldn't do before.

But inside the systems we live in, I can't say the help, let's see this is yet another way that human labor is being displaced without a good replacement.

And we wonder why we can't call ourselves engineers in Ontario. Do we really engineer anything or are we just making the line go up?

When will we learn that our actions have consequences?

Until then I guess we need to prepare for unforeseen consequences.

Thank you all for watching this and I hope it gives you some things to think about. I hope I didn't break too many taboos about the industry in the process but who am I kidding? I just broke all of them.

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Thanks to everyone on this list for inspiring me to take action and pushing towards the presentation I gave tonight. Special thanks to Mystes and Layl for really grinding hard into this, ripping in half and telling me where I'm full of shit. Extra special thanks to my husband for recording this for me and thank you for watching.

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I recognize that this is like really a heavy talk. It'll probably take you some time to surface some good questions about it but if you happen to have them right now please feel free to ask. I will be happy to answer but if it takes you a while to come up with it just email unforeseenconsequences@xeserv.us. It'll get to my inbox and I promise you I will reply. Have a good evening and does anyone have any questions?

Q&A

> What was the sigil you displayed at the beginning of your talk?

That was the sigil of Baphomet, one of the names for Satan as celebrated in Satanism.

> Do you see a future where AI technology can equitably help humanity thrive?

I do see a future where it can be used to benefit us all. The problem is the intersection of what could be, what is, and the tools in the process where you get the real interesting stuff and there's probably at least five good sci-fi novels you could write about this.

You could write a really compelling one about just what happened with OpenAI and especially what's happened with the e/acc people. I wrote the plot outline for a bad science fiction novel about the madness that is e/acc.

> What do you think we should do about this problem?

Just be aware that your actions don't exist in a vacuum.

If you build something that could replace jobs, then you need to be cognizant of the people that you're going to make unable to pay rent because if you make something that replaces knowledge work labor, you price them out of being able to eat. When people aren't able to afford to eat, they especially can't afford to retrain themselves to work in another industry that hasn't been taken over by infinite cheap labor.

>

First, thank you very much for the presentation. I'm not debating here. I'm very open for these type of discussions, but you show the industrial revolution and the next slide was all the people who were impoverished. I don't see it as a linear change though, so industrial revolution and all those workers working in those situations by itself was not a necessary, better situation than those workers in those dangerous situations being replaced by robots on the other side. As we move on, we never had any occasions that we needed to get rid of a bunch of populations because we didn't have jobs for them, but we eventually came up with solutions, new jobs, some sort of a solution. So the main question is how do you see that change exactly from industrial revolution to industrial revolution?

At some level, this stuff is going to happen regardless, and if it's going to happen, there should be some societal support mechanism, like universal basic income (which no matter what study is made to prove it doesn't work, actually does work) to replace the income that we're losing to machines taking over jobs that were previously done by humans. Something like universal basic income would probably help a lot here, but I don't know.

I don't have any solutions.

I'm more trying to blow the whistle that there's a problem before it gets bad enough that things become irreparable.

>

All right, I'd like to commend you first on your courage to do this. It's obviously difficult to come into a room and say the opposite. At the same time, I'll give you the opposite and the pit that was out of the pit. You know, one of the things that, to act your way a little bit, automation is known to increase the standard of living. So we have all great things we can do because of automation. So AI is automation's superpower. Now to say there's no consequences of AI being abused, there definitely will be, but looking at the greater impact of it all, and I think that's the reason we're at all here, is because we know that they're [unintelligible], but truly down, we know that bringing abundance to the world is far greater and needs to be substantial in that event.

I mean, yes, congratulations. You actually got the point of the talk. The point of the talk is to get you to think critically about what these tools are, what's going on, and what the benefits could be as well as what the downsides could be. I just don't know if our current system of distributing wealth and resources is really going to be able to adapt to that in time without some major cataclysm forcing the measure.

>

I just wanted to ask you. You said you're not sure if this system of wealth distribution is the right system that should be, you know, that should have this kind of AI in place for moving forward. So what kind of system do you think is more practical for that?

So I think one of the more ideal outcomes would be if people that whose work is in the training set of ChatGPT end up getting royalties from OpenAI for their data being used to make unimaginable amounts of money.

Like, I have been transformed into ChatGPT. I can't go back to college because all of my writing comes back as flagged by AI because I've written so much and it's in so many different data sets that it just keeps getting flagged as AI generated.

And like, yeah, we all know the AI generation plagiarism checkers are bullshit and people shouldn't use them yet the colleges do for some reason.

So like, what can you do?

Really the best possible way to get equity here would be to basically make it so that if you research AI with copyrighted materials, that's fine. But when it comes to putting the money generator in the mix, hold up, maybe you actually need to pay royalties because those blog posts and the like, they don't just come out of nowhere for free. Like, you know, you have to train to be an artist. Like, this photo of this log that I got off of Pexels, a public domain image stock image sit, you have to have some like skill in photography to know the rule of thirds and you know, like be able to configure your camera to capture the exact moment of this log falling like this. There are actual skills that don't look like skills that still require a lot of time, energy, and frankly, remuneration to compensate for.

I think one of the best ways would be to make the concept of an open source model that is only just the weights without any of the training data or any of the training methodology involved an unterm.

Like, that is not open source, that is open access. Open source would be providing all of the code you used for training, all of the data that you used for training, and a summary of where you got the data from.

That would be closer to what open source actually is and anything close to the definition of open source back when the GPL was the dominant definition of open source.

Generally open source AI stuff is really cool. There's a lot of stuff you can do with it. I'm just really concerned about the intersection between that and, you know, the capitalism system that we're all forced to live under.

> How do we combat abuse or data that isn't labeled as AI generated? Are we in the death of the Information Age because of this?

Oh. I have no idea.

On my blog I've been tracking AI-generated content farms and the tools that they use to do it because it's kind of horrifying how easy it is to get ChatGPT to hallucinate something about how to make soap with radishes.

By the way, don't do that. It'll kill you. It will actually kill you dead. Do not do that. No, I'm actually serious here.

The worst part is how this intersects with content farms, those random websites you find on Google with negative amounts of information and ads everywhere. I've already seen ChatGPT make that problem worse.

Hell, there was this SEO heist a while ago where this person basically fed Google Trends results into ChatGPT, SEO heisted by rewriting their competitor's website entirely from scratch and stole all their traffic and made a whole bunch of ad money contributing nothing to society.

I don't really know how this is all going to work out, but I really hope we're not in the death of the information age because that's what pays my bills. But if things keep going the way they're going, I can't help but agree that we may be on the decline of everything getting drowned in pages of trivia and celebrity bullshit.

>

Thanks for talking. You see that, you know, that the technology naturally democratizes people's access to information. Won't more access to information make things better for everyone?

I'm very glad that inference is getting so much cheaper, like, hell, this MacBook right here (I would lift it up, but it's hooked up via USB and I don't want to disconnect it). It can run Mixtral [a model considered roughly equivalent to GPT-3.5, the model used for ChatGPT] and it's just a random MacBook off the shelf. Looking back, I kind of regret not getting as much RAM because I didn't think I would be doing all this, but, you know, c'est la vie [Canadian idiom meaning "that's life"].

I have been thinking about doing an experiment of using Q-LoRA to train the ultimate recommendation engine based off of posts that I've either commented on or upvoted on Hacker News and using that as input with the classification of like or dislike. And because I downvote or flag a fair number of posts there, I can use that to create a somewhat rough aggregate of things that I would be interested in. And that would be something that I see could be a really interesting application of all this.

Like I said, though, the open source AI stuff is really cool, but the intersection between that and the system and the powers that be today, I don't know how that's going to happen and I'm just afraid that it won't end up good for all of us.

But thank you for all the questions. I am really happy that I was able to get you to be engaged with this topic and really start thinking because I don't know what's going to happen either.

Thank you so much. Good night all! Drive home safely! The roads are wild.


Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

Tags: ai, ethics, philosophy

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