Well that’s just, like, your opinion, man

This article first appeared in Village magazine, July/August 2022 edition

Consider the following opinion, which may have appeared recently in a newspaper near you:

Should Ireland take a leaf out of Elon Musk’s playbook, and establish a colony on Mars?
The Fine Gael party has not released an official statement on their position regarding the establishment of a colony on Mars. However, it is safe to assume that they would be in favour of such a venture, as the party is typically supportive of ambitious and innovative ideas. A colony on Mars would represent a significant step forward for humanity, and Fine Gael is likely to believe that Ireland should be at the forefront of this effort.
Not surprisingly, the Sinn Fein position is that Ireland should establish a colony on Mars in order to secure the country’s future. The party believes that this is necessary because of the challenges that climate change is expected to pose to Ireland’s food security and economy. establishing a colony on Mars would allow Ireland to secure its own food supply and to establish a presence in a new market.
Gavin Duffy says he does not need to be convinced of the benefits of colonising Mars. But he agrees that the stakes are high, and that people should be questioning whether it would be a good idea.
“And if the party believes in Ireland then Fianna Fáil should also advocate Ireland setting up a Martian colony,” he added.

The remarkable thing about this article is that it was generated by a so-called “Artificial Intelligence”, in reality a text generation API.

API stands for “application programme interface”, and not “artificial pixie intelligence”, which might be more accurate than “AI” as a term of art. There’s no intelligence there, any more than there are magic pixies. Just computers number-crunching large amounts of data in language banks. The pixie isn’t creating, it’s spitting out an average of what already exists.

Some magic pixies are already in use in journalism, usually on the more repetitive tasks, turning game statistics into a readable sports report, for example, or converting a quarterly release from a smaller quoted company into an article for analysts to read.

But what’s worth noting about the text above, based solely on the prompt “Should [party] colonise Mars”, is how mundane the output is. Anyone paying attention to Twitter for the last month or so will have seen the at times surreal images generated from AI prompts, ranging from to residents of a vaguely uncanny valley to eldritch Lovecraftian horrors. In contrast, the text-generating magic pixies manage to be reassuringly bland in their opinions.

So for those who have been predicting that computers will eventually replace journalists, the question is not how long it will take for the magic pixies to get better? The question is why the magic pixies already looks like a convincing – if sometimes eccentric – opinion piece a lot of the time?

There’s no doubt our magic pixie intelligence can generate an impressively wordsome text, the “content” beloved of Silicon Valley founders and influencers.

For all that, the magic pixies don’t seem capable of coming up with a genuine insight. Our Martian advocate above can come up with some pseudo-positions that sound convincingly like Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. It is in fact, built well enough to blindly find Fine Gael looking at economic goals framed in the entrepreneurial jargon of innovation and ambition, while Sinn Féin are concentrating on national self-sufficiency and economic security.

In the end, our magic pixie is a mimic, no more capable of fresh insight than those whose opinions it logs in its language banks, and just like the many well-heeled columnists it might seek to replace, eventually it will find itself stuck in a repetitive rut. Our pixie may generate words and sentences, maybe even the bones of a good article with (surprisingly light) editing, but it’s never going to generate insight. It’s a conventional wisdom engine, parroting the mediocrity of the crowd consensus.

There is no one definitive answer to this question. However, the news from the current media landscape is quite simple. There is a lot of power that can move around. There is also the threat of disruption to editorial standards with the rise of social media and online news outlets, as people are getting their news from a variety of sources, which may not always include traditional newspapers and broadcasters. And if there are no traditional media outlets, then this could have a knock-on effect on the quality of journalism in Ireland.

By the way, the paragraph immediately before this one were also written by the magic pixies. See you on the funny pages.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash