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Hack Watch | January 12, 2024

AI Evangelists Won’t Stop Highlighting The Danger Of Their Technology. Can 2024 Be The Year Journalists Stop Parroting Their Claims?

Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyLarry SummersMedia Accountability
AI Evangelists Won’t Stop Highlighting The Danger Of Their Technology. Can 2024 Be The Year Journalists Stop Parroting Their Claims?

The zero-interest-rate epoch of Silicon Valley is over, and with it, startup grifters are working overtime to ensure their promises of technological revolution are worthy of investment. Can the media learn something from the crypto bubble and start interrogating those espousing revolutionary technological progress?

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The veneer of technological utopianism espoused by the proponents of cryptocurrency and NFTs has been tarnished, leaving American media with a void in their coverage. With once-popular crypto fixtures like Sam Bankman-Fried, Coinbase, and Binance relegated to courtroom battles, the media has turned to a new technological savior to fill their quota of fawning profiles and apocryphal predictions of doom: Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

Matching the media’s desire to uncritically promote new technology is the AI startups themselves. AI startups, like most of the tech world, have been threatened by the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes, which have made the cheap speculative loans that buoyed numerous unprofitable tech companies for the past decade far more difficult to come by. As a result, the importance of self promotion has only increased as more startups compete over the far more constrained capital available to them. AI firms and Silicon Valley have latched on to the media’s search for a new technological savior, rebranding AI as the hottest thing in tech that comes with both the promise of progress, and possibility of starting a world-shattering technological apocalypse. 

The pied-piper of the bunch is OpenAI’s Sam Altman. First making headlines for AI’s apparent threat to the survival of the human species, Altman burst into mainstream coverage when he was temporarily fired as CEO of OpenAI before being restored only 4 days later (alongside a new board of directors featuring our favorite tech bro Larry Summers). This newfound fame has only grown in the month and a half since the incident. The New York Times included Altman as one of the 52 individuals worthy of recognition in their 2023 face-quiz (alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Elon Musk, and Henry Kissinger) and Time named Sam Altman as “CEO of the Year.” Altman has even become the go-to commentator on AI regulation, with Politico turning to him for comment when President Biden anointed (alas!) Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo as the administration’s leader on AI regulation. 

Altman and his ilk have built the prominence of AI through a savvy understanding of the last tech fad: cryptocurrency. While the hype surrounding cryptocurrency has begun to fade, blockchain was once the technology that Silicon Valley’s proselytizers attached all their utopian and dystopian ideas to. One only needs to look as far back as early 2022 to find articles from ostensibly serious publications and claims from successful tech CEOs that cryptocurrency posed a serious and pressing threat to the US dollar. Similarly, big crypto proponents began to worry about supposed threats the technology could pose, using fictitious scenarios of government-controlled cryptocurrencies as a dire warning to deflect from the real dangers the unregulated industry posed. 

Perhaps most crucial to this PR push was the effort by crypto executives like Sam Bankman-Fried to get ahead of regulatory agencies by calling for, and helping to shape, any regulation of the burgeoning industry. By appearing fearful of the possibilities their technology could unleash, these CEOs not only embellished its revolutionary potential, but they helped control the discussion surrounding the regulation of their industry. In the case of crypto, Sam Bankman-Fried’s favored regulation is somehow still a possibility despite his criminal conviction. 

Sam Altman and the AI firms dominating discussions have followed this playbook to a T. AI is regularly discussed as a Janus-like technology. On one hand, it could be a potential savior to humanity. On the other hand, without the guidance of the omniscient CEOs, it could destroy humanity as we know it. Just like SBF, AI executives have come to Congress hat in hand, calling for regulation on their industry before it is too late. These contrite performances have been particularly effective door-openers, allowing industry to heavily influence the government’s nascent approach to AI.In fact, recent reports note that the industry already holds major sway over the administration’s primary AI regulator, which will undoubtedly work in their interest. Despite crypto-mania unraveling in the wake of myriad crimes, it appears that journalists are ready to reprise their role of willful rubes who uncritically buy into firms’ coordinated campaigns.

As if this rehash of the crypto playbook was not farcical enough, the AI industry shares one more commonality with the blockchain world of 2022: the repackaging of existing products as new, innovative AI-powered technology.

At the height of the crypto revolution, companies were tripping over themselves to announce  new blockchain-enabled technology, or to rebrand themselves as crypto-adjacent. In 2021 for instance, Square Inc., a company best known for its easy to use credit card processors and for the Cash App, renamed itself as “Block” to emphasize its prominence at the forefront of blockchain technology. (among those serving on Block’s Board of Directors? Our favorite pretend professor, Larry Summers! Apparently federal law mandates that hype cycles include cutting Larry Summers a check)

Even more ridiculous than Square’s rebrand, large companies around the world announced their new blockchain-backed technologies. This included pharma-giant Pfizer, international shipping giant Maersk, and the oil producer Shell. Unsurprisingly, these shiny new products and accompanying press screeds didn’t amount to much. 

Now, AI is the new buzzword for companies seeking to signal their innovative chops to the investor class.  A couple years ago, most of these freshly labeled products would have been aptly described under the apparently less appealing banner of machine learning. The scale of this rebrand across the board is a useful hint for the business press— reporters need to recognize that AI is not necessarily a technology worth awe and deference, but corporate sheen adopted by technologists who seek to shape public discourse and ultimately control the regulation of their industry.

Image Credit: “OpenAI logo” by ishmael n. daro is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.

Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyLarry SummersMedia Accountability

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