Image by Kohji Asakawa from Pixabay
From DALL-E 2 to chatGPT, it seems that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has gone from warty discussion in the public eye to closer to mainstream and, seemingly, it is everywhere now. It’s been in the fabric of our daily lives in a significant way for over a decade now, but it wasn’t really obvious in terms of mainstream culture. This is changing. We may have reached a point where we’re starting to look at AI and how we might adapt it to and adopt it into, our sociocultural systems. This is an important step. Why? What does that mean?
First, it’s important to understand what culture actually is and why it plays such a vital role in human societies. As I’ve written before, culture is how humans have survived as a species. It is the knowledge we use in our every day lives to survive and thrive.
Culture today is mostly seen as the arts; music, literature, theatre, art. That’s just one part of culture. It also includes kinship systems (friends, families, communities, the relationships we form), systems of reciprocity (economics and trading, capitalism), values and customs, language, symbols, norms, forms of government, religion and social organisation. It is these things that anthropologists study, whether ancient, or, like me, current and future…digital anthropology.
Technologies have always been a part of our culture as well. From the stone axe to today’s smartphone and Artificial Intelligence and everything in between. And in our future. Developing AI can improve our lifespans and enable us to survive climate change.
For the most part, AI as a tool, and AI is an umbrella term for multiple tools, has remained somewhat in the background, largely going unnoticed by the general population. In broader society, we’ve mostly encountered AI through Hollywood and that’s mostly set up AI as a threat to humanity. To some degree, AI is a threat to us, but like any technology it can also be good for us.
Scientifically, AI is advancing rapidly, constantly evolving and improving. To the point where scientists aren’t even sure how AI does some of what it does. That is a warning signal. Whether or not we heed that warning has everything to do with culture.
DALL-E 2, chatGPT and GPT-3 are probably the first applications of AI to reach the broader general public. To enter into our societal consciousness in a way that can be more easily understood. We may talk to voice assistants like Alexa and Siri, but we don’t think about, or even realise, the powerful AI tools working behind the scenes. Nor do we much care at a macro sociocultural level.
But DALL-E 2 and chatGPT can be easily understood as an outcome. The general public doesn’t really know how it works. They don’t really care. What they care about is the output. Crazy, funny, dystopian, fascinating images from DALL-E 2 that enable us to see the world in a different context. With chatGPT, people are playing with it to write articles and explain things or try to make new jokes.
What these early tools from OpenAI are doing is helping us explore possibilities with AI, to assess if they bring value to our daily lives. Do they help or hurt? With the rise of DALL-E 2, public debate over art, what it means to humanity and how it affects parts of our culture have been raging. So far, the jury is out. There’s no simple answer because art plays a very deeply rooted, emotional role in different ways across different cultures.
With chatGPT, we are seeing similar debates. About what literature means and can AI even write a decent novel that humans will embrace. As a cultural anthropologist, I think not. AI does not understand culture, which is incredibly complex and deeply nuanced. But AI has already written sports articles, business documents, poetry and essays. Not very well, but will get there. One of the most boring pieces of business writing is annual reports. AI could do a smashing job on that.
Neither chatGPT nor DALL-E 2 really change the game at a sociocultural level. They don’t really teach us anything new in terms of evolving because they simple remix past knowledge. They can help us with perspective and perhaps more importantly, they can do some mundane tasks and heavy lifting that our far more complex and intuitive minds can then leverage to make better decisions or combine that knowledge in novel ways to do new things.
For OpenAI, their objective is to learn how humans might use AI and adapt it to their daily lives. One can only hope they’re including sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists in looking at the outcomes. They’ve launched this AI tools for free because it helps train the tools, but also because it gives them key insights to improve the technologies.
Culturally, there is as much ridicule as there is wonder and exploration around DALL-E 2 and chatGPT. Technology adoption in cultures has always been messy and unpredictable. It is and will be the same for AI and any other technologies we invent.
But the deeper conversation around AI and if it will become culturally acceptable and adopted is now really beginning. This is an exciting time for AI.