Friday, April 12, 2024

Tech Journalist Breaks Down AI’s Ongoing Impacts at Festival of the Arts

Nicholas Thompson is a busy guy. Technology journalist, book author, CEO of The Atlantic, and record-breaking marathon runner, Thompson sandwiched his Festival of the Arts appearance between two other notable gigs: interviewing John Legend, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and other luminaries in the Big Apple; and speaking with tech oracle Ray Kurzweil in Austin. So yeah—not a bad “get” for humble Boca.

In a well-attended talk capped by a cerebral Q&A with the audience, Thompson presented a TED Talk-style lecture Wednesday night on the promise and pitfalls of artificial intelligence. Thompson leans more into the former, hedging closer to techno-utopian than technophobe, as befitting his long tenure as editor-in-chief of Wired. He presented an increasingly near future, bolstered by the stratospheric technological leaps of Mohr’s Law, in which machines are “smarter than us in almost every way,” and that if optimally deployed, AI tech can be a “motorcycle for our minds”—a memorable metaphor that suggests its ability to rev up the gifts we already have, not subordinate them.

Segmenting his wide-angle lecture into five chapters, and continuously supplementing it with lively slides—including witty cartoons from Wired and The New Yorker—Thompson considered AI’s current and future impact in just about every aspect of American and global society, from living to working to medicine to geopolitics. He imagined a time in which many children’s best friends would be machines, which could be a positive, even therapeutic construct, not a nightmare of social alienation.

Photos by Paul Richardson / StoryWorkz

He conceded some jobs would be replaced by artificial intelligence, but that other human jobs would sprout up to help level the schisms in employment that we’re already seeing. He offered the premise that AI can be a bulwark against economic inequality, with data to suggest that it can lift all boats but especially those of the poorest among us.

On the flipside, Thompson showed the ways in which AI has yet to approach human levels of sophistication, humor being a major one: He asked ChatGPT to write a joke about machines enjoying leisure time in Boca Raton, and the results were as cringe as you’d expect. He also addressed the role human avarice can play in the development an AI, for a chatbot is only as moral, in a sense, as its creator. And he acknowledged ongoing privacy concerns regarding technology that consumes our data like a Rottweiler devours kibble. And once it absorbs something, it never forgets it.

But if any of the evening’s viewers were poised on the ledge, as it were, about a “Terminator”-style AI takeover, Thompson’s talk should have walked them off it—provided we change course in some aspects of the technology’s development. In the face of increasingly prevalent deepfakes contaminating our media, he ended his presentation with a plea: to use AI to augment and improve human life, not to replicate it.

As for democratic values in a world increasingly threatened by authoritarianism? Thompson didn’t wade much into politics, but in the Q&A, he said, grimly and succinctly, “the prognosis for democracy is bad.” And for the time being, AI may not be able to save us.


For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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