Maureen Dowd: AI is actually insipid until it’s actively insidious

ChatGPT opens a Pandora’s box of existential fears.

Washington • The alien invasion has begun.

Some experts say that when artificial intelligence takes off, it’s going to be like Martians landing on the National Mall.

So far, our mind children, as the roboticist Hans Moravec called our artificially intelligent offspring, are in the toddler phase, as we ooh and aah at the novelty of our creation. They’re headed for the rebellious teenage phase. When AI hurtles into adulthood and isn’t so artificial anymore, we’ll be relegated to being the family pets, as a resigned Steve Wozniak put it.

Silicon Valley is reeling at the prowess of an experimental chatbot called ChatGPT, released by OpenAI in late November and deemed “scary good” by Elon Musk. Musk, one of the founders with Sam Altman, left and now Microsoft is a partner.

There’s keening that ChatGPT — couldn’t they have come up with a better name, like HAL? — will eliminate millions of jobs. Why hire a college graduate if a bot can do the same work faster and cheaper? No more arguments about work-from-home rules, no more union fights. You don’t need to lure AI back into the office with pizza.

ChatGPT opens a Pandora’s box of existential fears. Silicon Valley brainiacs have talked about safeguards and kill switches for AI, but you know they won’t pull the plug when their baby turns into M3gan.

Once AI can run disinformation campaigns at lightning speed, will democracy stand a chance? We seem headed toward a Matrix where “it will become cheaper to show fakes than to show reality,” Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, wrote in Tablet. Will bad actors use AI to promote bigotry or hijack nuclear weapons?

As Musk once told me about his AI angst: “It’s great when the emperor is Marcus Aurelius. It’s not so great when the emperor is Caligula.”

Several years ago, I interviewed the OpenAI founders in San Francisco, as well as other Valley digerati. And that is when I realized that we are doomed. For the Lords of the Cloud, as they form their sleek new world, we’re VCRs.

That is why I feel free to kick back and shoot the breeze with our incipient overlords. I read that you could use advanced AI to interview historical figures. So I conducted my dream interview with Shakespeare, bantering with the Bard.

“Greetings, fair sir or madam,” ChatGPT said, embodying Shakespeare.

What is your response to those who think “The Merchant of Venice” is antisemitic?

“While it is true that some of the language and imagery used in the play may be considered offensive by modern standards,” he replied, Shylock “is a complex and multifaceted figure who is both villain and victim.”

The Bard of Avon, as he called himself, cautioned that while the Oscar-winning movie “Shakespeare in Love” was “whimsical,” “it should not be taken as a factual representation of my life.”

Can you write me a love sonnet?

He could, even though, as he said, he was “a mere machine.” One stanza read: “With eyes that shine like stars upon the sea, And lips as sweet as summer’s ripest fruit, Thou art the one my heart doth long to see, And in thy beauty, all my dreams take root.”

Shakespeare, it ain’t. Still, I tell him, I would love to be the heroine in a Shakespearean comedy! It took ChatGPT only moments to write “The Clever Maid.”

“Act I, Scene 1: A grand ball is being held in a grand estate. You, the fair maiden, are in attendance, dressed in the finest gowns. However, you are not there to dance and make merry, for you have a secret mission.

“Act II, Scene 1: You sneak away from the ball and make your way to the estate’s library. There, you discover a hidden door, which leads to a secret chamber. Inside, you find a chest filled with precious jewels.

“Act III, Scene 1: As you are admiring the jewels, you hear a noise. It is the estate’s owner, a wealthy and arrogant nobleman. He catches you red-handed but instead of punishing you, he is taken by your wit and charm.

“Act IV, Scene 1: The nobleman reveals that the jewels were a test of character and he had been seeking a clever and resourceful woman to be his wife. You are overjoyed and accept his proposal.

“Act V, Scene 1: The play ends with a grand wedding ceremony and a celebration of your cleverness and wit.”

Sounds more like a Salma Hayek heist movie. I spent the rest of the afternoon soliciting love poems from John Donne, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe, who called me a “telltale columnist.” I tried to channel Sylvia Plath, but ChatGPT told me that would be “inappropriate.”

The most entertaining mimicry was when AI Kendrick Lamar wrote me a rap: “Listen up, I got a story to tell, ‘bout a journalist who’s sharp as a nail. She’s got the pen and the power, To make politicians cower.”

For now, ChatGPT is typing, not writing. The creative spark requires humanity. But soon, AI could be sentient. Then we’ll need our dog bowls.

Maureen Dowd (CREDIT: The New York Times)

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.