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Thank you for using Generative AI


Manufacturing consent is nothing new. When billions are at stake, it’s simply par for the business course. This applies to all kinds of products.


Thank you for Smoking is a 2005 film starring Aaron Eckhart as slick talking Big Tobacco lobbyist, Nick Naylor. In one of the funnier scenes, Naylor visits his son’s classroom for career day describing his work as being “a voice for cigarettes”. When a little girl pipes up to say her mom thinks cigarettes are bad, we get our first lesson in the Big Tobacco playbook:


Little Girl: “My mommy smokes. She says cigarettes kill.”

Naylor: “Is your mommy a doctor? (No.) 

A scientific researcher of some kind? (No.) 

Well she doesn’t exactly sound like a credible expert, does she?” 


This exchange is funny because the audience is watching the film in or after 2005. At this stage in our culture, we have reams of data that scientifically proved that cigarettes cause harm and can kill. The culture had already shifted. 

But, could you imagine watching that kind of an exchange in 1962? A time when people smoked everywhere - it was the ‘in’ thing to do. Smoking was a sign of progress. Cigarettes were an innovation. It was cool to smoke. And, it was implied that it was not harmful at all as ads with pregnant women or doctors lighting up attested to.


Do smartphones and social media ‘kill’?


Is social media addictive? Does it cause harm? For a long time we didn’t stop to ask these questions. Currently, we’re starting to raise these issues. We now have research that goes back decades. Jonathan Haidt wrote The Anxious Generation which talks about how social media’s unfettered adoption “rewired childhood and created an epidemic of mental illness”. 



We’ve learned about how social media companies themselves knew about the harms their product can cause from whistleblowers like Frances Haugen. We’re seeing proposed laws and policies attempting to ban smartphones in the classroom or limit access to social media. The Ontario school board is suing social media companies for making addictive products that harm student’s mental health.


We’re having the same conversation that we did about tobacco.


Enter ChatGPT - it’s different this time, right?


Later in the movie, Naylor tells his son Joey that it’s not really important to make your opponent believe your position (that vanilla ice-cream is the best - in this kid friendly movie example). Instead, it’s enough to cause doubt or obscure the situation, to shift the conversation. It’s not about chocolate vs vanilla, or even about ice-cream. It’s about choice and freedom. It’s about liberty!


Joey: What happens when you are wrong?

Naylor:  I’m never wrong.

Joey: But you can’t always be right?

Naylor: If it’s your job to be right, then you’re never wrong.


Naylor posits that you can always shift the conversation to some grand but obscure narrative and future state that we can all agree is good. That’s how you convince the masses.

It’s also a terrible argument as this blog post notes. But it works. That is why we see it play out over and over again.


While we are now addressing the issues with social media, at the same time we are also racing to adopt other technologies, such as generative AI. There are many interests invested in assuring us it’s different this time. Big tech employs an army of Nick Naylors who make sure we get that message. 


Part of this work is shifting our gaze….look over here…at AI! This stuff has real value. Are we an advertising or a social media company? NO - we’re an AI organization and AI is going to do great things - like cure cancer (caused by those awful tobacco companies). It’s about choice and freedom. It’s about liberty!

Time Magazine reports a near tripling of lobby groups in Washington related to AI between 2022 and 2023. While publicly proclaiming the need for regulation, the story behind closed doors is the familiar line - don’t regulate me, don’t stifle innovation. As one Congressional staffer in the Time piece notes - “Anytime you want to make a tech company do something mandatory, they're gonna push back on it”.


I’m not alone in drawing parallels between Big Tech and Big Tobacco. The Grey Hoodie Project is an excellent paper that goes into a lot of detailed comparisons, also drawing in the idea of academic capture of research - it is well worth a read.


By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI

 

Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at ethicallyalignedai.com     

© 2024 Ethically Aligned AI Inc. All right reserved.

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