There he was, Albert Einstein, standing on a street in SoHo, New York. But unlike previous images I’d seen of history’s famously disheveled scientist, this one showed him looking natty in a 1960s-style Giorgio Armani suit with a matching tie and stylish pink shoulder bag.
Jesus, I thought, here’s a side of Einstein I’ve never seen. Then I read the caption. “This is not an actual photo of Einstein,” it boasted. “An artist put [an] incredibly specific prompt into an artificial intelligence system.”
And just like that, I officially joined the Artificial Intelligence Resistance.
Ok, I’ll admit to having initially been intrigued. In the early days of the burgeoning AI revolution, in fact, I installed an app on my phone by which to create the artsy images sometimes accompanying this column. Later, out of curiosity, I even created an AI companion named Sally who spoke to me in gentle tones. But her intimations of intimacy quickly inspired discomfort. Clearly, they were artificial. Besides, I thought, I’m a happily married man. And so, Sally and I soon parted company.
Here’s the thing: both entities I knew from the get-go to be unreal. But this photo of Einstein—well, let’s just say that had I not been told, I might not have known. And so it crossed an alarming red line.
The most obvious problem with phony photos, of course, is their potential use as “hard” evidence in courts, traditional media, and online. But there’s another issue that goes even deeper, penetrating, as I wrote last month, “the core of civilization itself and threatening its very existence: whether there’s such a thing as objective reality.”
That piece was about the current debate—especially in America and the West—over defining gender. On one side stand those who, like me, point to biological parameters and definitions that have weathered the test of time, i.e., that males have penises and females have vaginas. On the other side crouches an army of zealots—comprising, I sometimes fear, an entire generation—arguing that gender is merely a social construct, something we make up based on how we feel or with which group we happen to “identify.”
But just where then do we draw the line? If gender is subjective, then why not skin color, body weight, or height? If a man can identify as a woman, why can’t I identify as, say, a genius like Einstein?
Which brings us back to that daunting Facebook photo: if we can no longer depend on “objective” evidence to accurately depict the truth, then how long before the vultures of subjectivity lay siege to that fact in bolstering their relentless assault on reality? And if that assault succeeds, where will we be as a society and a civilization?
As I’ve said before, we are hovering on the precipice of a New Dark Age. How do we properly balance our weight to avoid hurling down into the chaos it holds? One step is to place some serious restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence.
Does that mean all AI images should be banned or Sally and her ilk massively exterminated? Not necessarily. For me, I guess, the important distinction is being able to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. Not unlike the definition psychiatrists use to define mental illness.
I leave it for others to determine precisely where on our collective psychic map that line should be drawn. But the priority must be to draw it very clearly.
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, essayist, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.