Professor of Media Theory Douglas Rushkoff talks AI myths, legends and hard truths with John Maxwell Hobbs.

Douglas Rushkoff is Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at Queens College/CUNY, the writer and host of three Frontline documentaries for PBS in the US and the author of twenty books about technology and media. His recent podcast and book, ‘Team Human,’ looked at the how technologies, markets, and institutions often contain an antihuman agenda, and how that can be addressed.

Will AI replace creators?

There is an undercurrent of fear in the media industry related to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), particularly on the part of writers. The recent public release of the generative AI text platform, ChatGPT has film and television writers fearing for their livelihoods.

Douglas Rushkoff - credit WGBH

Douglas Rushkoff, Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics

Source:  WGBH

“There’s so many ways to look at it,” Rushkoff said. “On the one hand, the whole thing is, I think, overblown. As long as you are doing entirely formulaic and derivative media, then ChatGPT is a threat to you, because it’s really good at being derivative with original storytelling. It’s a reversion to the mean. And to the extent that the entertainment industry is about reverting to the mean, and finding out what is the purest kind of ‘Cheese Doodle’ form of media content, ChatGPT will be better than 100 screenwriters using Robert McKee and Syd Field. But it depends what people are going to the movie for - if they’re going to the movies for the pure sensory roller coaster effect, then a machine might be able to deliver that neural experience as well or better than a human being.”

Rushkoff feels that human creators are needed to communicate essential human, personal feeling in a work. “If you’re going to engage with the human being on the other side of the content, in other words, what did James Joyce mean by this? What did Van Gough do? What was the feeling when he painted that?” he said.

AI as a new medium

Rushkoff’s view is that AI is not simply a new tool designed to make existing processes faster and less expensive, he views it as an entirely new medium and it will take time to discover what it can do best.

“Any new medium is going to turn the prior medium into its first form of content,” he said. “It’s what McLuhan was talking about with television - the first television was just theatre. They locked down a camera in the audience. It was on a stage until television discovered what it was about. Then theatre could go back and do what it does. Or photography - people thought it would replace painting until people realised, ‘Oh, photography is going to be great for portraits and science.’ And now painting can become impressionist and abstract and do all the things painting can do.

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It’s the same with AI right now. The idea is to substitute for human writers, but that takes away the joy of the AI. The artistic potential or entertainment potential of AI is for people to interact with the AI itself. For me to play with a non-player character in a video game, or to interact with a well-crafted AI character in a virtual world. That’s where it’s fun or using AI as a creation tool is fun. But I don’t think people want it to be about the entertainment industry looking at how to make things with AI and then hiding the fact. ‘How can we make things with AI that look as if they were done by people?’ That’s the wrong road to be going down. I think the future of AI-driven entertainment will be people playing with AIs, not people watching movies written by AI as if they were people. What you’re doing is using AI’s worst feature, which is its derivative nature, rather than its best feature, which is the surprising interactions that people have with it.”

“One thing I’ve been wanting to build is an AI tarot card reading platform where you have your tarot cards read by Carl Jung, or Aleister Crowley, or Madame Blavatsky,” said Rushkoff. “Or partnering with an AI on a mission in a virtual world, or someone creating a non-player character versions of great characters from novels, so that you can have an interactive experience of a Dickens story. Or where you’re on Broadway, in virtual reality with AI actors and they’re responding to what you’re doing. You’re creating unique experiences, but they’re your experiences. And they’re not something that you’re going to necessarily record and other people are going to watch. That’s secondary media to the experience of the thing.”

Loss of jobs, or loss of craft?

The fear of being replaced by AI is strongest in scriptwriters at the moment, but Rushkoff believes no one is immune. “I’ve been talking to a lot of people in the industry and writers are afraid of AI and directors are not,” he said. “Because the directors feel like their craft is so in the moment. And as a writer, I look at directors and think I think a director can be just as easily if not more easily replaced.”


Douglas Rushkoff’s recent book ‘Team Human’

The knock-on effects of using of AI to replace low level jobs is of serious concern for Rushkoff. “The real problem, as I see it,” he said. “Is there are a whole bunch of apprenticeship type activities, the boring, horrible things that you do when you’re coming up in the film or theatre industry - reading and doing coverage on a zillion scripts and seeing whether they fit into the formula or not; that’s the kind of thing that AIs will be able to do. They’re going to be able to do simple coverage or analyse storyboards and make sure they make sense from shot to shot or do continuity. But doing those things is what forces you to be to be intimate with the work. And you learn from the master, you learn from the next level up. If those tasks are taken by AIs, then how are people going to learn the craft?”

Biggest myth

Rushkoff feels that the biggest misconception around AI is that it is actually intelligent and sentient. “People think that artificial intelligences are real, he said. “They don’t know what ChatGPT is, which is a Large Language model (LLM). But that’s not an intelligence. It’s not some conscious being. It produces sentences that that look like something. Even people I speak to in technology don’t get it.

“They think it’s a thing. It’s not an intelligence, it’s a search engine that pastes together the quotes instead of giving you links.”

For me, where AI would get interesting would be if it said where it got everything. I’d love to see it all. ‘Where did you get this from?’ ‘Where did you get that from?’ To see where it retrieved each part of a sentence.”

AI taking over the world

Headlines have been full of warnings from the tech industry that unless governments start regulating AI development, we risk potential destruction on a global scale. Rushkoff takes these warnings with a grain of salt.

“Yeah, it’s just Tech bros looking in the mirror,’ he said. “What do you expect? Look how these guys have been thinking about us human beings for the last 20 years. They just want to control and dominate us. And now they finally made something, and they realised ‘Oh, no! Now this thing is going to try to control and dominate US.’”

“If they weren’t so powerful, it would just be funny” he continued. “But people have believed them so quickly. The tech bros announced, ‘Oh, no, we want a moratorium on these technologies, hold me back.’ It’s like those guys that are bluffing when they want to have a fight in the street. And they only act really like they’re really going to fight as long as they have enough friends to convincingly hold them back. But they don’t want to fight, they’re afraid. It’s the same with these guys. ‘Oh, regulate me regulate me. Otherwise, my thing is just going to oh, man, it’s just going to take over the whole planet.’”

Human versus machine?

Rushkoff believes there is an approach that can address the human/machine tensions we are facing.

“I wrote a book called Team Human,” he said. “It basically makes the argument that technology doesn’t have to be the problem,” he said. “When you see humans as a problem and technology as the solution, technology becomes a problem. But if you see technology as potential extension of humankind, and you’re aware that every extension leads to a corresponding amputation of some human ability, then you can develop technology in a balanced way.”

In concluding chapter of the book, he writes, “Artificial intelligence, cloning, genetic engineering, virtual reality, robots, nanotechnology, bio-hacking, space colonization, and autonomous machines are all likely coming, one way or another. But we must take a stand and insist that human values are folded into the development of each and every one of them.”

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