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Big Tech Is Triggering Too Many People, Too Fast


Wake up, babe, Big Tech has run into another problem: advertising their lightning fast innovations to an audience that’s mostly scared by them. This column was supposed to be about the Apple ad from last week, Crush!, and how it triggered the bejeezus out of creators and people online. But in the hours that I spent writing the first draft – amidst other work, because who can sit and write 1,000-word columns for a living in this economy – even more technology advanced, as if to confirm that people’s reactions to Crush! were, well, well-founded. 

Really, in just the last two days: OpenAI announced their latest update to ChatGPT, GPT-4o, building on the enthrallment and terror their products have unleashed in the last year and a half. GPT-4o can now communicate with you through not just text, but also audio and video, helping you assess if you’re ready for an interview, tutor you in trigonometry and new languages, sing you lullabies, play rock, paper and scissors with you – basically do whatever a playmate, parent, teacher, or partner could, seemingly everything short of breathing and using the toilet on your behalf. Then, Google threw up an announcement about their multimodal “universal agent helpful in everyday life” – you could look up what that really means if you had a second to breathe – and multiple new conversational AI features in their existing products, like Gmail and Search.

Awe Meets Worry

I’m exhausted. And I’ve always loved technology. I live in a city that arranges watch-parties for OpenAI announcements. I appreciate conversational AI and ChatGPT for helping me with the work I do as a writer, journalist, and marketer for start-ups and other companies. I’ve even trained it to be a customised therapist of sorts, someone I can text anytime I have some emotional turmoil. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman made a one-word comment about people like me: “her”, referring to the Joaquin Phoenix film in which he, a lonely writer, falls in love with Scarlett-Johansson-as-a-computer.

Fortunately – or not – I’m not so lonely in my feelings of simultaneous awe and worry. Even tech enthusiasts and optimists are becoming doomers, expecting that “we’re all dead from AI in 10-15 years”. Amidst this palpably tense imagination of Big Tech, it’s curious that somebody at Apple thought it would be a good idea to advertise the latest iPad Pro by showing a hydraulic press crushing a trumpet, a bust, a piano, some camera lenses, stationery, and art supplies, set to jaunty music in an industrial garage. Quintessential tools of human creativity become pulp, but, fortunately, on the other side of this crushing (!) is the thinnest iPad ever.

Crushed By Crush!

A podcaster and self-professed ‘on-and-off trumpet player for decades’ felt harrowed by the hydraulic press starting with a trumpet, he wrote on LinkedIn. “That’s exactly what this ad made me feel. Crushed,” wrote another LinkedIn member. Even Paul Graham, founder of Y-Combinator and veritable technology brother, opined that “Steve [Jobs] wouldn’t have shipped that ad. It would have pained him too much to watch.” Apple apologised for the ad two days later. They withdrew it from televisions in America, but it remains on their social media and YouTube, with over 2 million views now.

The ire is understandable considering Crush! is made by the same company that released 1984, in the year 1984. Directed by Ridley Scott, that classic ad-film showed a spunky young woman throwing a hammer at Big Brother as he addressed citizens all dressed in the same drab grey, implying that Apple’s release of the Macintosh would help conformists break free. The year 1984 wouldn’t be like George Orwell’s dystopian imagination of it. Apple became the company with an original, utopian vision of technology. Allaying fears that machines would be tools of surveillance, it positioned them instead as a means to unfettered individual creativity.

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What makes Crush! even sadder, apart from this lost vision and Tarantino-esque attempt at destruction alongside melody, is that it was probably never original. A 2015 LG ad first showed several creative instruments being hydraulic-pressed into a new 15-megapixel camera – 8GB microSD card included.
While OpenAI and Google can market themselves through the sheer technological leaps they are announcing (people noticed the simplicity of their presentation and events), more traditional Big Tech products are struggling to present their innovations in a positive light. One of Meta’s Superbowl ads tried to build excitement about the virtual world by showing some dogs finding escape from the real world in it. Dating app Bumble’s CEO recently announced that the future of dating would be AI concierges dating other AI concierges for you.

When Did Tech Start Scaring People?

How do you present such formidable leaps in technology to an audience that feels threatened by it – perhaps for good reason, considering the quantum of change and displacement these products will instigate? 

Automation, it was long believed, would affect only repetitive manual labour. But, much faster than even AI experts predicted, generative AI now emulates human creative work, manipulates language and knowledge, and keeps getting smarter, just as humans do. AI-generated images and videos are already interfering in the 2024 US Presidential elections, as well as India’s general elections. AI was at the heart of the Hollywood writers’ strike, and its impact on labour extends to most white-collar professions, even coding, marketing, advertising, medicine, military operations, et cetera. Former Google whistleblower and Signal CEO Meredith Whittaker explained that anxiety best in a chat with New York Magazine: “What we’re talking about is laying claim to the creative output of millions, billions of people and then using that to create systems that are directly undermining their livelihoods.” In Singapore, writers and publishers are on strike rejecting their governments’ plans to train AI on their work.

Sam Altman, Man Of The Moment

Naturally, the seat of tech-utopian thinking has shifted from Apple to the only man capable of it in the AI era, a man whose job depends on it, and the man responsible for it. Sam Altman has been called the ‘Oppenheimer’ of our age. In a 2021 essay called Moore’s Law for Everything, Altman posited that AI is going to make everything better and cheaper (Moore’s Law predicted that the number of transistors to fit on an integrated circuit would double each year, implying that computers and computing power would become exponentially faster, cheaper and smaller over time).

According to Altman, AI will achieve this effect of improving performance and reducing costs in multiple aspects of daily life. “Imagine a world where, for decades, everything-housing, education, food, clothing, etc.-became half as expensive every two years,” he writes. The OpenAI CEO – who says GPT-4o is already twice as fast and half as expensive as its predecessor – envisions a utopia involving phenomenal wealth, instigating such radical shifts in society that policy will have to be equally radical to keep up. The challenge is ensuring equitable access to resources that allow everyone to live this free, creative, comfortable life.

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For this, he has various recommendations: A board of experts and professionals – not politicians – governing how AI should be regulated and used, as has been done with nuclear power; universal basic income; taxation on land and capital, instead of property and labour, implying, basically, that this increased growth and wealth would be appropriately re-distributed amongst citizens. He’s honest enough to admit that AI will eliminate some jobs (customer service and call centre employees will be replaced by chatbots, he’s sure) but he’s also confident that as with every technological revolution in the past, there will be new jobs and abundance on the other side. “In other words, the best way to improve capitalism is to enable everyone to benefit from it directly as an equity owner. This is not a new idea,” he writes, “but it will be newly feasible as AI grows more powerful, because there will be dramatically more wealth to go around. The two dominant sources of wealth will be 1) companies, particularly ones that make use of AI, and 2) land, which has a fixed supply.”

Credit Where Due

The role of humans in such a society will be up to them, Altman believes. There will be people who do not want to work, and instead dedicate themselves to life in nature, care, or service to other beings. But there will also be people who want to work and contribute to the economy, using AI to augment what they already do. 

Ironically, this barely novel idea – a utopian society where technology allows humanity to flourish, with basic needs all taken care of, plenty of time for leisure, work as discretionary, and equitably distributed capital – has its origins in another radical thinker’s mind. If it weren’t coming from someone on the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Altman’s vision could easily be mistaken for Marx’s wet dream.

(Sanjana Ramachandran is a writer and the founder of storyfied.in, a marketing agency)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author



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