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Technology: It fails us, gets away from us

by Helaine Williams | June 4, 2023 at 2:43 a.m.

Good ol' technology: It seems that it's either epically failing to do what we need it to do, or threatening to do more than we want or need it to do.

As in: Our songs may not play; our videos or slide shows may not show; and our 2024 presidential-bid announcement on social media may turn out to be full of glitches (much to the delight of our opponents). But next thing we know, our picture, altered to make it look like we're wearing puffer jackets when we're not, is all over the internet.

I was of the naive opinion that once technology advanced past my former country-church-choir-directing days, where the CDs we were singing along with would garble and skip -- and those days of sitting at a workshop or banquet, feeling sorry for the unfortunate operator desperately trying to get a YouTube or PowerPoint presentation to cooperate -- it would be flawless.


Technology's still not flawless. Not even for uber-rich social-media owners or folks running for the country's top job.

Having suffered from embarrassments meted out by the technology I'm continually struggling to understand, I had a moment of sympathy for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He'd teamed with Twitter owner Elon Musk to officially announce that he'd be running for U.S. prez in the election slated for a year and five months from now. The announcement was plagued with technical problems.

Even the story about the debacle -- "Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign launch melts down in Twitter glitches" -- exhibited glitches when I called it up on my laptop. Stupid tech!

At the same time, though, we're hearing about the growth of artificial intelligence and the dangers it can present if it gets out of control. Recently, everybody went nuts over a picture of the leader of the Roman Catholic church appearing to sport a voluminous white puffer jacket and prominent silver cross on a long chain ... a picture that, it turns out, had been doctored via AI. (The Pope coat story provides a near-priceless opportunity for the over-50 crowd to learn new slang terms while Googling. "The swagged-out pope is an AI fake -- and an early glimpse of a new reality," trumpets The headline of a article: "That viral image of the Pope wearing a dripped-out white coat may have been AI-generated, but its swag was the real deal." I knew what "swag" meant but have just learned that "dripped out" means you're "showily adorned with jewelry or ornaments," or looking "extremely fashionable or sexy.")

I'm both attracted to and apprehensive of AI, as I suspect many of us are. My attraction to it led me to take advantage of last year's craze in which one could input various selfies to an app and get, in return, stylized, fanciful/whimsical images of one's self (as a sci-fi space traveler; alien; royal or historic personage; free-spirit being or just somebody who's younger, thinner, and/or got a clearer complexion). It was the usual scenario: I see a new trend. Hang back and watch people engage. Become the 1 millionth person to engage. And, immediately afterward, start to see social media posts scoffing at the trend or, in this case, start to see news reports cautioning people against engaging.

The news stories warning people against using AI to generate fantasy pictures of themselves have segued to news stories discussing concerns about AI in general, and in particular, concerns raised in the story about the deepfake pic of the Pope's AI-generated coat. There have also been stories showing how AI can perfectly imitate anyone's voice. The concerns have not been that Skynet (of "Terminator" movie fame) would go self-aware and blow up all the humans, but that bad humans would use Skynet -- or rather, AI -- to take things like online scams, "revenge porn," sextortion and other predatory pursuits to new levels.

Sounds like what we need to happen here is this: AI is rigged so that every time someone sets out to use it for evil, it goes into glitch mode ... onscreen distortions, skips, "spinning wheel of death" and all. But, alas, I fear that would create its own set of self-perpetuating problems. (I will warn that anyone wanting to use technology for evil needs to remember that whatever you sow you can reap, at the hands of any tech-savvy youngster.)

What to make of it all? Short of going back to 19th- (or, well, 20th-) century ways of living, the best thing for us to do is to treat 21st-century technological advances with cautious optimism ... with emphasis on the caution. I wouldn't mind having "Star Wars"' C-3PO, or "Star Trek The Next Generation"'s Data, as a buddy or personal assistant, but wouldn't want Darth Vader or the Borg Queen to show up on their heels.

Meanwhile, remember that no matter how fake-fancy a Pope's attire is made to look, thanks to the wonders of technology, a Musk or a DeSantis is somewhere muttering out how this piece of [expletive deleted] won't work right.

Maybe there's more comfort to be drawn from that than dread.

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Print Headline: New technology: It fails us; gets away from us


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