Science and Technology

AI is not the new crypto Inbox

The Daily
Isabel Fattal headshot

Isabel Fattal

Associate editor

Recent breakthroughs in generative AI, such as the image generator DALL-E and the large language model ChatGPT, are “potentially akin to the release of the iPhone in 2007, or to the invention of the desktop computer,” Derek Thompson told me in December. Here are the latest AI developments to watch in the coming weeks and months.

But first, three new stories from The Atlantic.

Hype Machines

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A server room (Jasmin Merdan / Getty)

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Investors are pouring money into AI.

Last year, investors put at least $1.37 billion into generative-AI companies across 78 deals—almost as much as they invested in the previous five years combined, according to the market-data company Pitchbook.

Microsoft, in particular, has taken a big leap: Since 2019, the company has invested $3 billion in OpenAI, which designed DALL-E and ChatGPT, and it’s reportedly in talks to invest another $10 billion. Microsoft purchased an exclusive license to some of OpenAI’s technology, and it’s working with OpenAI on a new version of its search engine, Bing, that would incorporate a ChatGPT-like tool.

Schools are concerned about academic integrity.

How will these tools change our lives? As Derek told me recently: “We don’t know. The architects of those technologies barely know. But it’s so interesting to play with, and the technology is improving so quickly, that we should absolutely take it seriously, as if it’s something that can’t be avoided.”

Some universities are modifying their courses to minimize the risk of students handing in essays generated by an AI tool. And they’ll likely have to deal with even more capable tools soon—OpenAI reportedly plans to release GPT-4, which would be better than the current versions at generating text. Meanwhile, a 22-year-old computer-science student has built an app to identify whether a piece of text was written by a bot.

It may be time to worry about deepfakes—again.

You might remember that term from back in 2018, when media outlets and misinformation experts panicked about a rise of fake, realistic-looking videos. (In a famous example that BuzzFeed engineered, Barack Obama appeared to say “President Trump is a total and complete dipshit.”)

While that panic remained just that—a panic—advances in generative AI “have experts concerned that a deepfake apocalypse” is on the horizon, our assistant editor Matteo Wong reported last month. As AI-generated media get more advanced, these experts argue, in the next few years the internet will be flooded with forged videos and audio touting false information.

Tools such as ChatGPT might not be as smart as they seem …

Last week, the Atlantic staff writer Ian Bogost injected some skepticism into the debate over AI. “ChatGPT doesn’t actually know anything—instead, it outputs compositions that simulate knowledge through persuasive structure,” Bogost wrote. “As the novelty of that surprise wears off, it is becoming clear that ChatGPT is less a magical wish-granting machine than an interpretive sparring partner.” Could all this investment into the tech, he asks, be chasing after a bad idea?

But don’t expect the hype to evaporate anytime soon.

Some have asked whether we’re witnessing Crypto 2.0: A complex new technology captures media attention and investor money, only for some of the high-profile businesses built around it to spectacularly crash. But crypto is not a good model for thinking about artificial intelligence, Derek told me. “Crypto was money without utility,” he argued, while tools such as ChatGPT are, “for now, utility without money.” Generative AI is “clearly something, even if one wants to argue that the thing it is is, for now, a toy,” he said.

Plus, AI has already succeeded in a way that crypto never did, Derek noted. Although you may hear some people use artificial intelligence as a catch-all term, the technology that’s currently breaking ground is the generative kind—tools with the ability to create new content, such as text or images. We’ve all been living with artificial intelligence for years now. “Go on Instagram. Why are certain stories or posts above others? Because of AI,” Derek said. “You’re living in a world that AI built when you use the most famous social-media apps.”

Related:

Today’s News

  1. Last year, deaths in China outnumbered births for the first time in six decades, the government announced.
  2. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was detained by German police while protesting the planned expansion of a coal mine.
  3. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Russell Gage was taken to the hospital after suffering a concussion in Monday’s playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Dispatches

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Evening Read

A photo of a building in the middle of a foggy field (Martin Parr / Magnum)

American Religion Is Not Dead Yet

Take a drive down Main Street of just about any major city in the country, and—with the housing market ground to a halt—you might pass more churches for sale than homes. This phenomenon isn’t likely to change anytime soon; according to the author of a 2021 report on the future of religion in America, 30 percent of congregations are not likely to survive the next 20 years. Add in declining attendance and dwindling affiliation rates, and you’d be forgiven for concluding that American religion is heading toward extinction.

But the old metrics of success—attendance and affiliation, or, more colloquially, “butts, budgets, and buildings”—may no longer capture the state of American religion. Although participation in traditional religious settings (churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, etc.) is in decline, signs of life are popping up elsewhere: in conversations with chaplains, in communities started online that end up forming in-person bonds as well, in social-justice groups rooted in shared faith.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Still from Netflix's 'The Lying Life of Adults'
Still from Netflix’s ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ (Eduardo Castaldo / Netflix)

Read. Still Pictures, Janet Malcolm’s posthumous memoir, critiques the idea of memoir itself.

Watch. The Lying Life of Adults, Netflix’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel, is at times maddening in its slowness—but it’s also stunning in a way that nothing has really been since Mad Men, our critic writes.

Play our daily crossword.

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P.S.

If you’re looking to dive deeper down the AI rabbit hole, I recommend the technology writer Max Read’s newsletter, Read Max. Read is undertaking a project to figure out how we should be thinking about AI, and last week, he listed seven thoughtful, provocative questions he’s using to guide his research, including “Why didn’t previous advances in AI tech create as much of a stir?” and “Is AI bullshit?”

— Isabel

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