The George Carlin Mechanical Turk

Justin Ling, on January 12:

In a hour-long special, I’m Glad I’m Dead, [George] Carlin returns to talk reality TV, AI, billionaires, being dead, mass shootings, and Trump.

It premiered to horrified reviews. Carlin’s daughter called the special an affront to her father: “Humans are so afraid of the void that we can’t let what has fallen into it stay there,” she wrote on Twitter. Major media outlets breathlessly reported on the special, wondering if it was set to harken in a new era of soulless automation.

This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, we investigate the Scooby Doo-esque effort to bring George Carlin back from the dead — and prank the media in the process.

Ling was one of few reporters I saw who did not take at face value the special was, as claimed, a product of generative “artificial intelligence”. Just one day after exhaustive coverage of its release, Ling published this more comprehensive investigation showing how it was clearly not a product of “A.I.” — and he was right. That does not absolve Dudesy of creating this mockery of Carlin’s work in his name and likeness, but the technological story is simply false.

Cory Doctorow:

The modern Mechanical Turk — a division of Amazon that employs low-waged “clickworkers,” many of them overseas — modernizes the dumbwaiter by hiding low-waged workforces behind a veneer of automation. The MTurk is an abstract “cloud” of human intelligence (the tasks MTurks perform are called “HITs,” which stands for “Human Intelligence Tasks”).

This is such a truism that techies in India joke that “AI” stands for “absent Indians.” Or, to use Jathan Sadowski’s wonderful term: “Potemkin AI”:

This Potemkin AI is everywhere you look. […]

Doctorow is specifically writing about human endeavours falsely attributed to machines, but the efforts of real people are also what makes today’s so-called “A.I.” services work, something I have often highlighted here. There is nothing wrong, per se, with human labour powering supposed automation, other than the poor and unstable wages they are paid. But there is a yawning chasm between how these products are portrayed in marketing and at a user interface level, the sight of which makes investors salivate, and what is happening behind the scenes.

By the way, I was poking around earlier today trying to remember the name of the canned Facebook phone and I spotted the Wikipedia article for M. M was a virtual assistant launched by then-Facebook in 2015, and eventually shut down in 2018. According to the BBC, up to 70% of M’s responses were from human beings, not software.