AI is the Sea Witch –I Want My Voice Back

By David Bruemmer, Founder, W8less, USA

September 4, 2023

Scroll through Instagram and you’ll find that some of the most striking images of landscapes, animals, and, yes people, are not real. The most striking, it turns out, are not limited by the harsh confines of material existence. Conversely, when I see photos of myself, I sometimes feel like the image is not real. With my eyes squinting and my face all scrunched up, I feel like I’m looking at a wizened caricature of myself. It’s not the reality I want. AI, like the sea witch, is here to help. We are usually comfortable with AI removing our wrinkles or turning us into a cartoon, but what if it reads all our emails and starts conversing with our colleagues? Or writes your next love letter? If my AI-generated emails are preferred to the ones I write by hand, how can I justify subjecting you to my usual drivel? How will we ever get our real voices back?

The proliferation of AI is not necessarily wrong. If beauty is art then the AI images qualify. Do we want to tie ourselves down with antiquated notions of “real?” If you spend many hours each day playing Genshin Impact or FIFA soccer, that is your reality. Your investment of time, imagination and skill make it real. If your Facebook account takes up all your cycles, then that echo chamber is your reality. So much so that you might be willing to storm the capitol building. Perhaps what makes the AI generated images real is that they help sell real products, the proceeds of which pay your mortgage. From a corporate standpoint, money is a major pillar of reality. 

The latest goal is to merge real and synthetic entities into the Metaverse. So fervent was his view of this emerging “reality,” that Zuckerberg bet the Facebook farm and the name, changing “Facebook” to “Meta.” He believes the Metaverse is the future of commerce and daily life, blurring the boundaries between the online and physical universe. Why are Microsoft, Apple, Google, Meta and so many others betting billions on this future? By being able to insert product placements into your mind’s eye, corporations can monetize every element of your life. Hyper context-sensitive advertising means that the system doesn’t just recognize you and what you want… they want to know where you are going, exactly the route you are taking to get there and everything you look at on the way. They want to control your gaze and your attention. It’s not just your mermaid tail and voice, but your mind and soul as well.  

You get a coupon for the steakhouse appetizers just a few minutes before it comes within view. And that’s just the start. Stranger Things exists not to entertain you, but because the character Eleven eats an inordinate number of Eggo waffles. Now imagine product placements everywhere. With the metaverse, the Marvel character you see jumping from the roof of your car into the F-150 pickup is sporting a product placement while fighting alien villains. Would your favorite superhero be wearing Nike’s? Hard to know for sure, but that’s what I just saw with my own eyes.  

Interestingly, the one challenge here is not governmental policies that restrain corporations from using your data or civil liberties that protect your privacy. Those battles were lost long ago. The one slim cushion preventing the complete merger of synthetic and real is a sticky technical issue called the “correspondence problem.” We need accurate position, navigation and timing (PNT) to merge real and virtual elements together. Whether the robot is a virtual R2D2 or a real grocery delivery robot, in order to join the drama of our local environment, it needs to stay on the sidewalk and weave through the pedestrians. It’s not just the graphics. When using headgear, we need the AI reality to match up with our normal reality or we literally get sick. 

How strange that our eyes and minds can deceive us, but our proprioceptive system seems to hold the line. There is always some way that the truth winds its way back into the picture. Ursula looks like a purple hag in the mirror which shows her as she really is. Take an augmented reality system on a walk through Times Square and you’ll watch it fall apart. Reality is hard to fake. Connectivity latency needs to be less than a hundredth of a second. Positioning needs to be accurate to 10cm. Our inner ear needs to be appeased. If you are Mark Zuckerberg, you’re pounding the Oculus headgear on the table, frustrated because without more accurate positioning and more reliable communication, the headgear is limited to your living room rather than monetizing your every footfall down the street. When it comes to mixed-reality, ground truth still matters. 

Now, let’s say for a moment that you don’t really care about the metaverse or mixed reality and that you’re much more concerned with the replacement of your job by AI. Does truth still matter? AI as an industry is the best model for the fact that you can fake it till you make it. Has AI made it? It depends on whether you care about the truth. If what you want is an ability to digest human ideology, reprocess it and spit it back at us in a convincing dialog then I’d say that AI has indeed “made it.” You’ll no longer be adrift in an ocean of difficult data and text. Ursula will take your voice and give you data analytic legs. But what if all that human ideology is wrong? 

For corporations that want to control and monetize data, generative AI is the best tool ever. Generative AI is an ideology spigot that never runs dry. Generative AI can amplify the control that the powerful currently have on the narrative, allowing ideology to masquerade as objective facts. We don’t believe Facebook anymore. We know that images on Instagram can be doctored. Corporations need a new way to whisper into your mind. 

AI doesn’t need to be this way. We could use real-world data to take ideas to task. Michigan leaders wanted to prove that slowing down would improve safety and congestion. They lowered the highway speed limit to 55mph and stepped-up enforcement. This had been the prevailing bureaucratic ideology for decades, but when they measured the impact of their hypothesis they found that accidents and congestion had worsened. It turns out that humans are complicated. About half of drivers dropped their speed from the old speed limit of 65mph to the new limit of 55mph. The other half matched the speed of those around them, generally maintaining the 75mph they felt was safe. These two groups conflicted as the increasing disparity brought increased congestion and accidents. Michigan raised the limit up to 75 and everything improved. 

To ensure that AI is linked to truth we need access to “ground truth” which again requires accurate PNT. On its own, GPS cannot accomplish this reliably. AI can help by using vision-based and laser based perception to snap us to reality.  So we have come full circle. AI can destroy our reality or shore it up. It can degrade our human view of truth or preserve it. We need to design AI with a strong affinity for truth –AI that sucks in real-world data and uses it as an essential ingredient. 

Prince Eric could have looked at Ursula’s reflection and seen what she was. He could have looked at Ariel and seen her soul. All too often we don’t. AI cannot look into your soul, but we could use it to serve as a mirror, reflecting back to us not just what we want to see, but the impact of our choices and behavior. Reality is not always pretty. We need to see the wrinkled face with the half-closed eyes. Neither AI nor humans will ever fully grasp the truth, because it is being constructed with every passing moment, but we do need our voice and that voice shouldn’t be owned by a sea witch in Silicon Valley.