Perilous Tech

Occasional thoughts on technology and social issues

On a daily basis, I’m bombarded by fantastical news stories and email articles about ChatGPT and how 2023 is the year it’s going to replace “X” job or profession. It seems that no profession is safe. It reminds me of the Dewie The Bear scene from the movie Semi Pro where Will Ferrell screams, “Everybody panic” in a crowded coliseum.

Everybody panic gif

ChatGPT has gone from being a piece of technology to a social contagion right in front of everyone’s eyes. Claims are being made that people can’t possibly believe, but they are making them anyway. I wrote last year about how ChatGPT creates amateur futurists. Well, it seems the floodgates are open.

This has created a group of overoptimistic zealots who’ve basically taken on the identity of crypto bros pumping ChatGPT to 10x. On the flip side, I’m certainly not delusional about the job loss myself. It’s true that generative tools will certainly have an impact on jobs. To take this further, I also expect some surprises and unexpected cases to crop up. The world is a complex place and it’s just not possible to take in all the variables. There are lots of people working in this area, and automation is going to have an impact on multiple professions, even if it doesn’t eliminate them. So, fair enough. But, the extent of the current mania is mind-boggling, with people tossing all manner of delusional predictions at the wall, hoping one sticks.

So, I wanted to add a bit of sanity, so anyone can make sense of this topic and at least try to frame these news stories in the appropriate bucket.

Evaluating News About ChatGPT and Job Loss

There’s a simple way to evaluate the merit of these job loss arguments, even if you aren’t familiar with the technology. Just ask a simple question. Is the cost of failure low? Boom, that’s it. If the cost of failure is low, then there’s a good chance there’s a near-future risk of impact from these tools. If the cost of failure is moderate or high, then there’s little chance of impact in the near term with the current crop of AI tools.

In my previous post, I wrote about how freelance artists will be impacted by the pervasiveness and accessibility of these tools. If you don’t like the art generated by the tool, just generate another one. On the flip side, think about the impact of having ChatGPT be your doctor or lawyer, especially given the fact that these models tend to hallucinate facts.

I know ChatGPT passed the Bar exam, but why is this surprising? I mean, I think most people would be able to pass the bar given an open book and unlimited time. Knowing the answers to questions is a far different matter than applying the knowledge you have to specific situations. I certainly wouldn’t want ChatGPT to argue my case in court, even though creating convincing BS seems to be one of its strong suits.

A Warning

I’ve stated before my biggest concern with all of the ChatGPT hysteria is that people in their mad scramble to compete will end up using this technology in areas where the cost of failure is not low, where there’s the potential for harm and even loss of life.

I worry quite a bit about mental health uses and the medical field in general. Mental health chatbots should be a bit red flag for us. There have been promising uses in using computer vision models to assist doctors in identifying whether tumors are malignant or benign, but that’s far different than having a knowledge system like ChatGPT. Even if these tools reach the status of “pretty good” it will lead to an automation bias where the doctor takes the recommendation of the system by default. This condition would, in effect, make something like ChatGPT, your doctor. Would this be better or worse than clicking through WebMD and diagnosing yourself?

I think people, in their optimism, tend to fill in the blanks, even in the case of very complex problems. In such cases, assuming we are only a couple of tweaks away from solving existing issues. It’s dangerous to bestow some mystical object status on technologies such as ChatGPT when what we need is a realistic analysis of the capabilities and limitations of such approaches. We tend to underestimate the complexities of even simple problems, which makes humans terrible at predictions, but our over-optimism could lead us down a very dangerous path in the next couple of years as these tools creep into critical decision paths.

2023 is going to be an interesting year for generative AI. Past the demos of the previous year, there’s going to be a big push on monetization. This application and integration into products will have a displacing effect and this effect will have a disproportionate impact on certain areas, mainly in the creative arts.

Note: All images in this post were generated with the prompt, “generate a stock photo image that is just okay and mildly pleasing to a human“

Perspective Mismatch

I see quite a few people making statements like, “AI isn’t going to replace people. People who use AI will replace people who don’t.” Or some form of this statement. This is usually followed by a hearty high-five at their insight. The problem with this statement is it just doesn’t reflect reality for certain types of jobs. To put this in another context, this is like saying, “Food service robots won’t replace food service workers. Food service workers who don’t use robots will be replaced.”

These comments are often made by people in positions that have no visibility into impacted areas. If you are a developer who finds a productivity boost from CoPilot or ChatGPT, you have a much different perspective than the millions of independent artists, creatives, and copyrighters across the globe. The warning signs are here. This isn’t AI hate or denialism. This is reality.

2023 will be the year where you start seeing freelance creatives losing opportunities as the impact of generative AI hits freelancers and the gig economy. Jobs will be eliminated or devalued to the point where it isn’t worth it.

From Demo to Application

Last year was the year of the demo, the time to showcase the novelty. Demos like Dall-E, Stable Diffusion, and ChatGPT were everywhere. To quote the philosopher Steven Pearcy, “Nobody rides for free.” In 2023 the novelty is wearing off and the check comes due. These systems cost money, and the need to monetize is here.

This year will witness a rapid expansion of generative AI in all areas with a low cost of failure. Everything gets an AI assistant. This assistant mindset will put the tools much closer to everyone. You won’t need to go to a website or use an API to use the tools. They’ll be built into the things you use on a daily basis. Microsoft is investing billions of dollars into OpenAI, and comments from Yann LeCun from Meta about generative models being built directly into Facebook for creative activities. Notion is beta testing a generative writing assistant integrated into the tool. And the list goes on and on.

ChatGPT was a great demo, but not really overly unique. Other large tech companies have similar tools but are more conservative about how they use and release them. Well, the floodgates are open.

Good Enough is Fine

Creative arts are an area ripe for disruption and democratization, aka devaluation and elimination. In the areas of creative arts, the impact of failure for an AI system is low, making it a great target for AI, which tends to have high rates of failure. This is much different than, say, a self-driving car not recognizing a red light or a pedestrian in a crosswalk. In creative areas, If you don’t like something, just generate another one, or ten, or a hundred.

Human novelty won’t cut it for most regular creative tasks. Sure, some creatives will continue to find work, but the work won’t be the same and there’ll be far less to go around. Even though humans have the potential to bring something unique and ultimately deliver a better product, with the devaluation of artistic endeavors, good enough will be just fine.

This technology will most likely be justified under the heading of “advanced customization.” Being able to take something like an advertisement and custom tailor the content to specific groups or even possibly down to individuals. Today, you can target ads at specific groups of people, but in the future, you may not need to. By having some form of adaptive ad with adaptive content, the ad can tailor itself to the individual. Don’t get me wrong, this is an interesting technical problem but it creates a human problem. Once again, my tech friends are reducing everything down to the process of doing something and not the human aspect of the task. Whenever you have extreme customization and add scale, you always create a process with too much friction for human effort.

This is about the time that I hear the groaning about these creatives having the same access to tools that everyone else has. This is certainly true, but it’s not an equalizer at all. Even if creatives were able to keep pace, there’s a monumental satisfaction drop. If you are an artist who enjoys putting together graphics, having an AI generate a bunch of them isn’t the same as creating your own. If you are a VoiceOver artist, having an AI generate a voice isn’t the same as using your own voice. This isn’t the “eliminate the mundane work so humans can focus on more interesting things” promise from AI being fulfilled here.

I get the feeling in discussions on this topic that technologists equate creative writing to writing code.

I get the feeling in discussions on this topic that technologists equate creative writing to writing code. This is incredibly disconnected. Creative endeavors aren’t some problem to be solved or some slog that needs to be eliminated. In many cases, the slog is kind of the point. As someone who does both, I totally get it. It’s completely inefficient and hard to understand, but it’s the reality.

But this is irrelevant because creatives won’t be able to keep up, especially with these tools at everyone’s fingertips, tempting people to do it themselves. Many just trying to get tasks done will use the tools provided to them in the interface. They’ll wonder why they are paying someone to push the same buttons they can push right in front of them.

Why am I so confident? We have similar evidence for this trend in camera phones. Look at what camera phones and photo filters did to the photography industry. In the past, people would hire a photographer or have a lab touch up photos, but now people use an iPhone and smear a filter on it. This is true even for events as meaningful as their wedding. Sure, we still have photographers today, but the industry is pretty decimated. Many who could have made a living can’t even eke out a meager side hustle with this.

When I was growing up, I used to hear the term “starving artists.” I guess it’s time for creatives to realize that existence again. Even Fiverr will have to rebrand to Freeverr.

Near Future

They’ll notice their work first change, reduce in value, and then drop off.

Most immediately impacted will be freelance artists, graphic designers, writers, and copyrighters. They’ll notice their work first change, reduce in value, and then drop off. Below are a few examples of what I see happening very soon.

Freelance copyrighters, instead of being asked to write the copy themselves, will be asked to tweak and make adjustments copy generated from a tool. They’ll be asked to do this work for far less than they’d be paid to write the copy. In many cases, the copy will be tweaked in-house and the external copyrighter won’t be contacted.

Say you are part of some group that wants to have some t-shirts made. Instead of having an artist design the image and graphics for the shirt, you now use the web interface of the t-shirt company’s website to automatically generate unique artwork for you, bypassing the need for a freelance artist.

Artists are asked to become part of a working group where they receive a gift card for providing feedback on a swath of images generated by an AI for a stock photo site. The mechanical mashing of thumbs up and thumbs down is a stark contrast to the artistic activities to which they are accustomed. Less pay and less fulfillment.

What Do We Do?

So, what can be done about this? Nothing. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. There’s literally nothing we can do. Genies don’t fit back into bottles. I could say that companies should put an emphasis on hiring people to continue doing this work, but it’s not going to happen. And, maybe there’s nothing we should do. This may just be the natural part of human evolution toward becoming machines ourselves. If you look at some of the jobs impacted, these are uniquely human jobs.

If I have hope here, it’s that we begin to tire of everything being automatically generated and tailored specifically for us.

So, let’s pour one out for some of the jobs impacted in the near future. Here are a few off the top of my head, artists, graphic designers, stock photography, VoiceOver and voice actors, copyrighters, proofreaders, and a whole lot more. Coming soon to this space actors and actresses.

A couple of years ago, I said that the people who should really be worried about deepfakes are actors and actresses. Interesting thought, since many of these generative AI systems have NSFW protections built into them, pornography will continue to be made by humans. The future prospects of human actors and actresses look quite a bit different through this lens.

Who Really Loses?

Is humanity destined for a future where “creativity” is defined by just smashing the like button on the output of AI?

My biggest concern here isn’t the job loss, it’s what we are losing as humans. As I mentioned, these are jobs that were previously uniquely human. 65,000 years ago, our ancestors showcased their creative talents by painting on cave walls. They may have been memorializing events, but it’s a sure thing that some of them liked the activity and it gave them a sense of fulfillment.

Is humanity destined for a future where “creativity” is defined by just smashing the like button on the output of AI? Only time will tell.

1984 Book Cover

This may seem like an odd book recommendation for 2023. After all, the book is 74 years old. Maybe you, like myself, read it when you were in school and felt that you’d gained all the insights from reading and classroom discussions. Do you remember any of those? I know I didn’t.

Revisiting a text like 1984 with the benefit of years and new context can lead to surprising insights. For example, did you notice the device called a Versificator? It’s a generative AI (of sorts) and its purpose was to crank out creative content, such as literature and music, without needing to expend creative thought. I’ll leave you to ponder the parallels with our modern boom in creative, generative AI (Dall-E, ChatGPT, etc.)

However, if you ask ChatGPT about its role in the story, it thinks it’s much bigger. Thanks to @CoryKennedy on Twitter for the image and the laughs.

ChatGPT thinks it's Big Brother

What Made Me Revisit 1984 in 2022?

Believe it or not, it wasn’t misinformation, disinformation, or even surveillance discussions. It was something far less intelligent.

A while back, a person I was conversing with made some outlandish claims contrary to proven scientific facts. They insisted people shouldn’t be able to claim otherwise. Instead of directly challenging the person, I stated, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

The person gave me a puzzled look. Very proud of myself for remembering the quote, I smiled and said, “It’s from 1984.”

They responded, “I don’t care what year it’s from. That’s stupid.”

That exchange made me realize a few things. It’s been over 30 years since I’d read the book. I don’t remember the time when I’d read it. I was too young and cared too little. The quote I so proudly produced wasn’t from my reading but from others’ usage. I made a commitment to re-read it again in 2022.

Context

Put the reading in the context of the technological present. There’s a lot of referring to “the party” in the book, but just replace that with any other current group (tribes, in-groups, out-groups, conspiracists, etc.) The suspicion of other in-group members is like attacking your “near enemies.” For example, It’s easier for a group of conspiracy theorists to attack an in-group member who may agree that Bill Gates is microchipping people but not believe the earth is flat versus an out-group member who is rational and doesn’t care what conspiracy theorists think.

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.”

George Orwell – 1984

Does that quote remind you of something? Concepts like the Two Minutes Hate and Atrocity Pamphlets make sense in the context of modern algorithmic social networks optimizing for increased engagement.

The big conversation of the book always seems to be the surveillance and disinformation aspects. These concepts are certainly relevant today, but not from any one place. Orwell didn’t envision surveillance capitalism on top of other surveillance activities. Also, everyone is more than happy to share their exact location at will, which would have been terrifying to Orwell, but for all of us, seems to be the norm.

There are many other relevant aspects from the book applicable to current times. Denial of Science and reality, contradictory actions such as Doublethink, controlling language, and even re-writing or reframing history to fit changing narratives.

Orwell was on to the fact that people act differently when they know they are being observed. The same is true on social networks. People are more likely to share misinformation that aligns with their biases when they know others will see it.

I enjoyed my rediscovery. It made me think about its applicability in our algorithmically driven, tribal, and divided times, even though it was written in 1949. It also made me think of other texts I may have overlooked, such as Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century. I normally don’t pre-plan my reading, but I may need to add consider reading this in 2023.

With that, I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from the book.

A Few of my Favorite 1984 Quotes

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.”

“In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement.”

“The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

“The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police.”

“In Newspeak there is no word for “Science.” The empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of Ingsoc.”

“A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.”

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

“And if the facts say otherwise, then the facts must be altered. Thus history is continuously rewritten. This day-to-day falsification of the past, carried out by the Ministry of Truth, is as necessary to the stability of the regime as the work of repression and espionage carried out by the Ministry of Love.”

“Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

Scour the web and social media for reactions to OpenAI’s ChatGPT and you’ll notice a trend. Everyone’s now a futurist. The tech crystal ball has revealed to droves of people, regardless of background and experience a future where you can ask for technical content in the style of Shakespeare or even write college essays for you. People are crawling out of the woodwork, making wild predictions based on nothing more than the fact that of their surprise at the output. It conjures images of Tom Smykowski’s Jump To Conclusions Mat.

So, why does everyone believe they can now peer into the future after interacting with ChatGPT?

State of the Art

Let me say that the team at OpenAI did some fantastic work here. ChatGPT is legitimately cool research, and OpenAI is pushing the state-of-the-art forward and doing it in a public forum where people can evaluate the results. I can’t wait to see what the next iteration looks like. None of my observations is a reflection on the work they’ve done.

Manufacturing Futurists

There are two primary reasons ChatGPT turns people into futurists. The first is their surprise at the output, and the second is the accessibility of the demo. The first is fueled by the second.

Most people playing with the demo have never interacted with a Large Language Model (LLM) before. This lack of interaction means they don’t have a baseline for comparison of progress. A majority of the responses of the system will therefore be surprising. Surprise, in some cases, causes people to ignore the genuine failures in others.

The genius (or intelligence) in ChatGPT lies in the accessibility of its demo. Everyone can access and can play with the demo with no knowledge of programming, and it is all delivered on a simple web page. No complex decisions to make and no parameters to tune, just a blank input and your imagination. You have to love the simplicity.

I’ve seen wild claims that ChatGPT may be AGI or at least is Proto AGI. This is nonsense and ignores the system’s genuine failures when generalizing to the real world. I’m not an AGI researcher, but I can tell you we won’t get to AGI by chaining a series of LLMs together. Although, this should be a warning because if this is what AGI looks like, humanity is pretty screwed.

GPT-3.5 Isn’t A Single Model

The first thing to remember is that GPT-3.5, which is behind ChatGPT, isn’t a single model but a series of models.

Models referred to as “GPT 3.5”

GPT-3.5 series is a series of models that was trained on a blend of text and code from before Q4 2021. The following models are in the GPT-3.5 series:

code-davinci-002 is a base model, so good for pure code-completion tasks

text-davinci-002 is an InstructGPT model based on code-davinci-002

text-davinci-003 is an improvement on text-davinci-002

This explains why ChatGPT can be both good at Shakespeare and Python programming.

Over Optimism

Over-optimism can lead to early adoption and implementation inside products, which can lead to devastating consequences. What people forget is that this is just a demo. Many of the surprises people had at the capabilities of ChatGPT are because of their questions. Even though the questions may seem complex, they are often in the confines of a narrow problem definition. Humans aren’t good at randomness or complexity. We often oversimplify scenarios and don’t account for real-world complexities.

“Give me a recipe for tomato soup in the style of Shakespeare.” We become in awe of the prose and ignore the quality of the recipe, which in this case, is technically what you were asking the system for.

Surprise leads us to gloss over the many, many failures that ChatGPT has. It even fails on simple tasks that revolve around keeping count of items, like this example from Elias Ruokanen.

Even in the domain of information security, I saw people raving about ChatGPTs capabilities in identifying vulnerabilities in code. Someone commented that it could be used to collect bug bounties in the cryptocurrency space, but it failed. In my own experiments, I often found that it misclassified issues making guesses, such as since a parameter was accepted, it was vulnerable to SQL Injection.

Speaking of code understanding, since ChatGPT could provide explanations of code, people thought they could use it to answer questions on Stack Overflow, with the predictable banning that followed.

In experimental systems like ChatGPT, Dall-E, etc., the cost of failure is next to zero. You don’t get that in the real world. In the real world, even simple tasks end up being far more complex than anticipated and failure is costly. Seemingly simple automation tasks even hide complexity. For example, MSN replaced journalists collating stories with an algorithm and published and even preferred fake stories about mermaids and Bigfoot.

Experts Downplaying Problems

The scary part here is that when it comes to cutting-edge research in this area, where a system can get things wrong and cause a large amount of harm in the real world, many experts don’t seem to think it’s a problem. They aren’t acknowledging the threats and issues.

Even incredibly smart people don’t seem to grasp the impact of the issues. This is concerning because some of the very same people are building this technology.

Below are some statements from Yann LeCun, Chief AI Scientist at Meta. The first shows a lack of understanding of how misinformation and disinformation spread on social platforms, and the second makes a stunning false equivalency.

As far as his comments on generative art, I wrote an entire article on this subject. This statement is a false equivalency.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mr. LeCun, and he’s certainly not the only one spouting these opinions publicly. But I’m using his case as an example to make a point. Experts developing this technology should take feedback from professionals in adjacent disciplines to strengthen their systems, not pretend they are only a few tweaks away from utopia. What has been happening is people take criticism, feedback, and misuse as attacks, instead of the healthy criticism necessary to improve systems. This was especially true with Meta’s Galactica, where genuine dangers were played off as insignificant mischief.

When generalizing to the real world, many of these issues are deeper and more systemic than anticipated. We aren’t merely a couple of tweaks away from fixing these issues.

Issue Handling Strategies

Current issue-handling strategies for these types of systems meant to generalize to the real world are sub-optimal. They typically fall into two categories, trapping conditions and adding more models.

Manually trapping conditions for all the things you don’t want a system to do is not a realistic or sustainable way of handling issues, especially with something as generic as a language model. Yet, many feel this is the way to go and we can see it in the way the engineers handled issues with ChatGPT as the situation evolved. But, you leave the door open to the human imagination and manipulation. The possibilities seem endless and you can only write so many rules.

Complexity is both the enemy of security and safety. This is something engineers should keep in mind as they look to engineer protections for their systems. On that note, another strategy thrown around is to train additional models to detect specific issues from the model. So, now we end up with an army of models with the purpose of keeping other models and systems in check, creating an opaque landscape where the next surprise is just around the corner.

More research is being done in this area, but today the gaps are still large enough to drive a truck through.

What Can You Do?

Always keep in mind that technologies like ChatGPT are experimental technologies, and you shouldn’t throw them into production systems. Unfortunately, people are going to do it anyway. Below are a couple of things to keep in mind before considering an experimental technology in a real-world system.

What’s the cost of failure in your use case? If it’s higher than insignificant, don’t implement the technology because it will fail.

Analyze known failures and trigger conditions for those failures. Try to recreate them. If, at first, it seems they are fixed, try different methods to trigger the same result. You could bump up against some condition trapping, and bypassing it could be trivial.

Perform extensive testing, including a series of tests specifically to get the product to fail. Be realistic about the results.

In short, you have to know the impact of your system failing and the various ways to trigger failure conditions in your system. If the problem space is narrow enough, you may focus the technology and trap specific conditions. If the cost of failure is insignificant, then you have some breathing room to experiment, but your mileage will always vary.

Conclusion

With this post, I just wanted to make a couple of observations on ChatGPT. It really is legitimately cool research and it’s moving state-of-the-art forward. Genies don’t fit back into bottles, so it’s important that we take steps now to plan protections to mitigate harm. Experts developing this technology need to take concerns and feedback from professionals in adjacent disciplines to ensure existing harms are reduced and safer systems are created as a result. The next few years are going to be interesting for sure.

The art world needs a revolution! A revolution fueled by randomness. Forget predictable brush strokes and perfect technique. Let’s just throw some words into the grinder, add the element of danger and see what happens. Why not? It’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I needed a laugh, so I give you this gem.

Since the olden days, I’ve got a chuckle from doing something like catting /etc/shadow and piping it to your sound driver. It’s not like it makes beautiful music. It’s, well, kinda stupid. I wanted my own stupid thing. Well, it only took a couple of decades, the invention of cryptocurrency, and advancements in generative AI, but I finally have it. Welcome to the world of Crypto Wallet Pneumonic Generated Art. It’s cultured, refined, and, don’t forget, incredibly stupid. Yes, now you can risk it all to generate art from your wallet seed phrase. Behold! The beauty!

The image was generated with the following seed phrase.

lion kidney disease gaze better party youth brain vivid aunt hawk canal

The results from a few runs of these range from kinda neat to bizarre.

I used version 1.4 of Stable Diffusion with a few lines of code and the following parameters.

import torch
from torch import autocast
from diffusers import StableDiffusionPipeline

model_id = "CompVis/stable-diffusion-v1-4"
device = "cuda"

pipe = StableDiffusionPipeline.from_pretrained(model_id, use_auth_token=True)
pipe = pipe.to(device)

prompt = "lion kidney disease gaze better party youth brain vivid aunt hawk canal"
with autocast("cuda"):
    image = pipe(prompt, guidance_scale=7.5)["sample"][0]  
    
image.save("test.png")

This is all fun and games, but what if you did it with a real wallet? Hmm, let’s do that.

Here are 5 images generated from the 12-word seed phrase of a real Phantom wallet. How much SOL is in there??? Hmmm. You’ll have to recover the seed phrase and find out. At the time of this writing, the crypto market is crashing, so far less value then you’d hope.

Two of the Twelve words should be painfully obvious. Interestingly enough, from a few of the experiments I did, it seems to latch on to just one or two of the words that it’s most familiar with and discards most of the others on every subsequent run. It also seems to make some relations between words that explain how the model is constructing the image. I may run some further experiments using DALL-E as well and compare them to Stable Diffusion, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Time To Make Millions $$$

Now, for the business plan. What if NFTs were created based on pneumonic phrases from cryptocurrency wallets with balances in them? I mean, because why not? Since NFTs aren’t actually about art, this could be a way of superficially pumping their value. Will this be the next art revolution? Will people walk around galleries sipping wine and marveling at these masterpieces? Just asking questions 🤣

Try it yourself! Throw caution to the wind and join the artistic revolution.

Disclaimer: Not responsible for loss of funds due to complete stupidity!

The utopian promise of AI and automation was to free humanity up for more enjoyable pursuits, such as hobbies, but it seems AI is coming for these more enjoyable pursuits first. We’ve seen an explosion in machine learning models focused on creative activities that we normally associate with humans, such as writing a story, creating a visual work of art, or creating music. So, how will humans find value when both work and leisure activities are gone? What will we do instead? It’s a journey we’ll all embark upon very soon.

Generate

You’d have to live under a rock if you hadn’t heard of terms such as DALL-E or stable diffusion. Even Meta has their own generative model called Make-a-scene. These models create artwork based on a text prompt. For example, I used stable diffusion to generate the image below with the prompt “an artistic rendering of a robot caught in a bad dream.”

Generated image of a robot
Generated Image of a Robot

Not the greatest prompt, but you see what the model created. With more time and tweaking, you can get very good results. AI models aren’t limited to generating images. Large language models (LLMs) have generative text capabilities, including the ability to write stories and movie scripts. An example of one of these models is GPT-3. There are also models generating music as well. That’s the three largest human artistic pursuits.

Sometimes the output from these models is rather comical or not good or not as good as a human, but it’s foolish to think it won’t get better.

It’s not hard to see where we’re headed. At some point, you’ll be able to specify by a text prompt for a video scene, and a model will generate a video of that scene for you.

This is legitimately cool technology. I’m not downplaying the technological aspects or accomplishments of the teams working on these projects. I’m pointing out there are some large unintended consequences for humanity that aren’t part of the discussion.

So What?

You might not think this is a big deal. Stick with me.

Let’s take a non-AI use case that had a large impact. What’s the real impact of everyone having a high-quality camera and a bunch of photo filters on their phone? Is it that you can take great pictures of your family? Or pets? Is it that camera companies have taken a sales hit? These may all be true, but not quite. The real impact is that people devalue the skills of photographers as well as the output.

People feel there’s a minimal difference between them and a professional photographer. Photographer and even working in photography used to be a legit career. A career that’s mostly been relegated to a hobby or side hustle.

We also devalue the output, the photo itself. I’ve heard people discussing photographers for their wedding say, “Can’t someone just snap a few photos on their phone for us?”

Technology made the quality of the capture better, but it didn’t make the photos better.

Technology made the quality of the capture better, but it didn’t make the photos better. The eye for a photo is something truly spectacular, but it’s a skill many people will never know. We are drowning in a world of high-quality and mediocre photos. There’s no friction, skill, or need to be selective.

I’m not saying I’d like to go back to a time before I could take a great picture with my phone. I wouldn’t. My point is that we devalue not only the skills of the people that technology replaces but also the output. But, it can get worse.

They Took Our Jobs, Second

For both jobs and hobbies, we don’t need Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). It can be done with the narrow AI we have today. So no human-level or superhuman intelligence is necessary.

The cost of failure for an artistic endeavor is much lower than for work activity. If a model generates a bad piece of art, you can just generate another one. If a self-driving semi-truck turns at full speed into a bus, that’s a different story. I still wouldn’t recommend truck driver as a career choice to any high school students, but it will be some time before we let trucks drive independently without human supervision.

The Big Picture

I’m not being an alarmist, but I am raising the alarm. Artistic endeavors are uniquely human and the resulting art is just a small piece of the larger puzzle.

What we really have is a satisfaction mismatch. Creating a piece of art, both good and bad, brings a certain satisfaction. Prompting a machine to do something creative on your behalf isn’t satisfying, and the novelty wears off quickly.

The effort and friction involved in creating art is part of the process. You discover what works and what doesn’t, and you even develop a personal style. You learn from your failures. When you use a generative model, you’ve invested nothing into the process, and as a human living the human experience, you get nothing in return.

Get nothing
Get Nothing

We should start thinking of these models as something David Krakauer would call Competitive Cognitive Artifacts. It’s not like these models make artists better. Not unless you want to consider humanity as nothing more than a cover band for AI. We’re mentally outsourcing this creativity to a model which doesn’t understand what it’s doing. It’s “seen” a bunch of things and does its best to produce what it’s asked for. The more things we outsource, the less capable we are as humans in the area being outsourced.

It’s not like these models make artists better. Not unless you want to consider humanity as nothing more than a cover band for AI.

An area where this outsourcing is more obvious is in driving. There are some born today that will never have to manually drive a car. Imagine driving down the highway in bad weather, and suddenly, the car asks you to take over. How capable would you be of navigating this situation without manual driving skills?

The brain is an incredibly connected device, and we often find that performing an activity may have a direct effect on some other part of the brain. Even if this effect is just reducing stress. So, it’s important to ask, What are we really losing when we outsource creative activities?

Creative endeavors also have a recharging effect. I always feel far more effective and solve problems better after I’ve worked on something creative. I form new connections and think of solutions I wouldn’t have otherwise. You don’t get the same effect from saying, “Generate me a picture of a dog on the moon.” However, it seems there’s a market for putting in even less thought by outsourcing the prompts too.

Missing The Journey

Here’s the question and my biggest concern, will younger generations avoid these artistic endeavors altogether? Why pick up painting or a musical instrument if it’s going to take you a decade to master the skill? Humans are already losing art contests to algorithms. Children not picking up art is a shame because only a very small part of creating art is the output. I doubt any artist will want to reflect on their life and say, “I wrote the best prompts!”

I doubt any artist will want to reflect on their life and say, “I wrote the best prompts!”

It’s also possible but highly unlikely that the opposite happens, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. When you first take up art, you only think about the output. You want to write a song or paint a picture. Your goal is only the finish line. No child is insightful enough to foresee and understand the larger journey and act of self-discovery art provides or have some vision about how working on art will better other parts of their life. It takes a while to understand you are getting something far more valuable out of the process other than the output. Adults also tend to stumble into these insights.

Compounding the issue is the fact that we’ve completely lost our ability to delay gratification, directly impacting the investment of time in art. Why spend days or weeks working on a song or mixing paints and working on layers when you can just create a prompt and get something in seconds?

Loss of Value

Where does humanity find meaningful value when both work and creative activities are outsourced to machines? This is something that’s often lost in the debate. It typically turns to responses like new jobs will emerge, or we’ll have a universal basic income, but it’s not often you hear about the topic of value. Value is a far more important topic.

I haven’t had many conversations on this topic because we are still pretty early, but I feel that people will tell us the metaverse will come to the rescue. Rather than writing music, you can pass your time viewing ads and playing games with bots and other humans. We’ll evolve!

You don’t really learn about yourself by playing video games, wandering a metaverse, or even spending more time on social media. These are activities where you spend time avoiding being yourself, not discovering who you are. These activities also don’t provide meaning and purpose. It’s a hollow and superficial sense of accomplishment when something arises. Not to mention, social and psychological evolution doesn’t happen at the pace of technological evolution.

My Dystopian Prediction

Driving more people online will lead to greater divides with more manipulation and surveillance. What happens when you seek knowledge in a world where facts and reality are debatable, and history is rewritten? You won’t find the truth. You find whatever it is you’re looking for. We’re getting a taste of that today. No matter what you believe, you’ll find evidence of it and with barely any effort.

In general, we’ll become much more tribal, more detached from what makes us human, more detached from reality, more encased in our bubbles and far more overconfident in our knowledge of the world having experienced far less of it.

We’ll put more value into our beliefs and create new religions, even though we won’t refer to them as such. Religions provide a set of rules and structure and the promise of a future payoff. We’ll enjoy the status and recognition that being a good member of this new religion affords us.

We still have religions today, even though technology, science, and society have changed. Unfortunately, belief systems have proven robust against these changes. This is partly due to their intolerance of scrutiny and criticism. It’s this intolerance and lack of self-reflection that we carry with us into the digital domain.

No amount of facts can compete with what you believe.

What Can We Do

I have one suggestion to start with, keep school art programs.

I always get mad when people say, “Why do we teach art in school? It’s not like these kids will become Picasso or something.” Unfortunately, this sentiment isn’t uncommon, and many school art programs get cut. This isn’t the point of art programs. We shouldn’t replace art class with a programming class because it “seems” more practical.

One of the best things we can do is keep art classes and programs in school. It’s time set aside dedicated to art. Not playing with a phone or a video game. It’s an opportunity for kids to potentially stumble into some of the insights they wouldn’t discover otherwise. They can then use this insight in their programming class.

What would be great is if some of the tech companies creating technology solutions funded art programs in schools.

This isn’t a one-for-one trade, but it’s something. It’s a start.

Conclusion

Genies don’t fit back in bottles. The time to start thinking about this is now. We have kids in school today that will never have an art class and may never manually drive a car. We need to start thinking about how we fill the value gaps that technology creates before humanity careens off the road.

This technology is moving faster than many realize. We are nearing a world where instead of someone in a local band saying, “Check out my song.” You have millions of people saying, “Check out my feature film.” I bet you wish YouTube displayed the number of dislikes now.

As I return from Las Vegas, I’ve been reflecting on some spirited debates I had around the topic of regulation and sanctions related to the Web3 space. This is a highly contentious topic, especially around decentralized finance. So, I thought I’d jot down a quick note of my thoughts on the subject.

I delivered a talk on Web3 security at Black Hat USA. A couple of days earlier, the US government imposed sanctions against Tornado Cash. Tornado Cash is a cryptocurrency mixer on the Ethereum blockchain that anonymizes transactions to avoid tracking. It’s become a favorite among criminals to launder ill-gotten gains, including nation-states like the DPRK. It’s been estimated that at least $1.54 billion resulting from crimes such as thefts and hacks have been laundered through Tornado Cash. Being relevant, I briefly mentioned it in my talk since one of the first things you must do before attacking a project is to plan your exit strategy. After all, money laundering 101 is to move fast to confuse tracking attempts.

Privacy

To people not involved in the space, it may be confusing why anyone needs to be private or anonymous while sending or receiving cryptocurrency. The reality is that people are acting as their own bank. If you identify a specific individual and you know that person has a certain number of assets, then you can just show up at their house and force them to hand over their money. It’s a legitimate concern.

Also, with the public nature of these technologies, it could make it far easier to analyze purchase histories and patterns to learn deeper insights about individuals. The same kind of privacy violations we are concerned about today outside of the Web3 space. This becomes much worse for people living under oppressive regimes.

Most of all, it’s just not anyone’s business what people spend their money on. Certainly not so they can create algorithms to learn more about our spending habits and try to convince us to buy things we don’t need.

I mean, it’s not like traditional organizations have a great track record of protecting people’s privacy. There are countless breaches and disclosures that prove otherwise. So, that leaves us with a bit of a conundrum.

Typically, when this topic is brought up, two major talking points bubble to the surface. Let me do a bit of debunking about why these two points don’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything about illicit activities.

Cash

One of the arguments I hear is that cash is anonymous. This may be true in theory, but there are some significant challenges. Probably the biggest point is that cash isn’t frictionless. If you don’t believe me, try to move 100 million dollars across an international border or trade one currency for another. In small amounts, sure, but when you are trying to launder large amounts of money, it isn’t.

There are other choke points as well, where you have an opportunity to catch someone who’s stolen a large amount of money. Video cameras at establishments, border checks, scanners at airports, and on and on. Not to mention there’s also the time factor. It takes a lot more time to move physical cash than it does an electronic transaction creating more opportunities for detection.

In reality, cash is only anonymous in small amounts and under the right conditions.

Decentralization

There’s been a surprising lack of effort on behalf of the community to address issues like money laundering and theft. In fact, the attitude of the community has been pretty much the opposite. Many proponents say that this is the purpose of decentralization in the first place. To resist efforts to regulate and sanction.

In a more extreme case, there was even the Ethereum developer who went to North Korea for the purpose of helping the DPRK evade sanctions. Even though most advocates wouldn’t go to North Korea, these aren’t fringe opinions and quite a few people in the space supported Virgil Griffith.

Decentralization means a lack of ownership. Unfortunately, this lack of ownership also extends to the issues created by decentralization as well. Whenever issues of money laundering arise, the resounding response is, “that’s just how the system works.” Just because something is decentralized doesn’t mean there is nothing that can be done.

Another comment I hear is that illicit transactions make up a small amount of the total transactions, so why is anyone concerned about it? It’s true that money laundering and illicit transactions make up a small number of the total number of transactions per year, but we are still talking about billions of dollars. Not to mention, some of these networks have become the primary vehicle for criminals. This is also not an excuse to do nothing about it.

More Regulation and Sanctions

If there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s that we’ll see more regulation and sanctions coming soon. Tornado Cash isn’t the only game in town. More regulations and sanctions are coming because the community is completely unwilling to address these concerns in any meaningful way.

Sanctions and regulations often create more friction than directly addressing an issue. This is because they are rarely implanted well and are part of a knee-jerk reaction. For example, someone sent Crypto Influencers small amounts of ETH from sanctioned Tornado Cash wallets, getting them banned from using Defi projects, which is kind of funny. Ironically, it’s the same lack of friction that these influencers tout that allows this to happen.

Another side effect of the sanctions is that legitimate users doing nothing wrong may have had their assets frozen.

Given all of this trouble, you’d think that the community would be looking for ways to avoid these situations in the future, but mostly what’s happening is complaining about how things aren’t “decentralized” enough.

If you are in full schadenfreude around what’s happening, you should take a pause. Even if you don’t care about Defi and web3, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about what’s happening. There’s the potential here for blowback onto other privacy controls outside of the web3 space. The more of these sanctions we see, the more comfortable the government gets with creeping into other areas, such as weakening the encryption we use on a daily basis and take for granted. There are also issues concerning code and free speech in the blast radius of these sanctions.

Prevention is the Best Cure

The best way around sanctions and regulations is not to incur them in the first place. So, what could the community do? Projects could band together and create something like a Defi Standards body. This group could define standards that address security and privacy as well as curtailing illicit transactions. The adoption of these standards would mean that projects that don’t follow them have a low reputation and legitimate Defi projects can refuse to work with them. Certainly not perfect, but it would have a positive impact.

Unfortunately, using controls to curtail illicit transactions requires the introduction of friction. Controls such as delays, additional verification, transaction limiting, and many others are considered unpalatable and anti-freedom.

So, don’t hold your breath that something like this will happen without being forced. Creating standards is something that traditional organizations do and it doesn’t apply. Rules are for squares man!!! You’d think an attempt to stop the movement of funds stolen from other Defi projects would at least be a start and directly applicable to the space, but there aren’t any real efforts here.

There’s too many chains, too many projects, making too many problems, and not enough love to go around. (Sorry for the music reference, once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Bravo if you know the song.)

Conclusion

As long as the Web3 space continues to do nothing to curtail harm, we’ll see more regulation and sanctions. The community seems to think these are a result of some sort of threat to traditional institutions. As long as this mindset persists, instead of the fact that ill-gotten gains are helping fund nation-state nuclear ambitions, we won’t see meaningful solutions from the Web3 side. The community seems content to duke it out with various countries around the world instead of addressing the issues.

The next couple of years will be interesting.

What if I told you there was an investment opportunity where you were almost guaranteed to lose money? What if I told you that this technology allows for someone to airdrop you unsolicited d**k picks, and instead of burning them or being upset, you end up hanging on to them in the hopes that someday they are worth money? (Yes, this actually happens) Welcome to the wonderful world of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs).

Amara’s Law: We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Even though I have a bit of fun in this post, it would be foolish to underestimate the effect of NFTs in the long run. Misconceptions, hype, and complete denial of reality are stifling something which could be a cool technology experiment. That’s what gets lost; NFTs are just a technology experiment. Whenever money is involved, people tend to forget that things are an experiment.

Start

By now, you’ve probably heard of NFTs but aren’t quite sure what you get when you buy one. Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Many people buying them don’t know what they’ve bought either. There’s plenty of information out there on what they are, so I won’t go into that here, but I would like to talk about is their value because that is a hotly debated topic.

NFTs have become the slow news day punchline for many, some for a good reason. Not a day goes by where there isn’t some NFT scam. Fakes, frauds, and scammers are all cashing in on the craze. The victims aren’t gullible rubes either; some are large corporations like Kia.

Even though I take a few of my own jabs for entertainment purposes, this isn’t a post beating up on NFTs. Just a look at where the technology is today, from the perspective of novelty and individual ownership.

What You Get

For many, it seems silly to spend money for a receipt because that’s essentially what you get when you buy an NFT today. You don’t get the copyright. You can’t reproduce the image and create new NFTs from it. The receipt is verifiable to someone curious enough to check the specific blockchain on which the NFT is minted. This is summed up in the following cartoon from the New Yorker.

Non-Fungible Tolkien


Side note: Props to whoever came up with the “Non-Fungible Tolkien” joke.

If the copyright holder wants to mint another identical NFT on a different chain, they can do that. If they want to print posters of the image you bought and sell them, they can do that too; you can’t. As a matter of fact, if you wanted a poster to hang on your wall, you’d have to pay for the image again.

In non-technical terms, from the buyer’s perspective, what You’ve bought is bragging rights. Bragging rights are what people find valuable about them.

The Value of an NFT

NFTs aren’t about the artwork or artists, no matter how much someone tries to tell you otherwise. The current value of NFTs is about signaling to others that you are part of a group. There’s a hierarchy, so the “cooler” the NFT project, the “cooler” group you belong to. NFT ownership is like being in a fraternity, only in this case, the hazing comes from outsiders.

NFT ownership is like being in a fraternity, only in this case, the hazing comes from outsiders.

Determining which projects will be popular can be tricky since NFTs have a closer relationship to memes than art. You aren’t always sure why one takes off, and the other fails.

The market is fueled by two things, FOMO and sunken cost fallacy. This is accelerated through artificially built-up hype created through traditional social media platforms.

Pumping and Artificial Hype

Let’s look at a simple example NFT launch. An “artist” creates an NFT collection. Now they have 10,000 images that nobody will buy because nobody knows about them or cares. They need to create a buzz, so they make an announcement on a platform like Reddit or Discord offering to airdrop free NFTs to users, but there’s a catch.

To get free NFTs, you have to take a series of steps that involve amplifying the announcement and spreading the word on various social media channels. To others, it looks like “everyone” is talking about this NFT collection, and they buy an NFT when the project launches because they don’t want to miss out. FOMO hits both the person getting the free NFT and the buyer. Neither care about the artwork but don’t want to miss out on an investment.

Of course, the previous scenario is only if everything goes as planned. If it’s a scam, you just helped a thief steal people’s money, and of course, these scams happen all the time.

There are also PR stunts to try and draw more attention to NFTs, like the guy who took out a loan for half a billion dollars to buy an NFT from himself.

Look at the example below of a fake sale from Twitter.

These stunts are a daily occurrence and actually hurt the community instead of help.

Almost all NFTs and NFT projects lose value after the initial hype dies down. Anyone who paid an astronomically high price for an NFT will feel pretty stupid or just has so much money they won’t miss it anyway. Of course, there’s always the scenario where you may just love collecting NFT farts.

Now, that said, some people have made money on NFTs, but they typically sell them shortly after buying or receiving them. To take this a step further, a recent study published in Nature found that the top 10% of traders account for 85% of the transactions and trade at least once 97% of all assets. This is a shell game, not a vibrant community of collectors.

Scams and Illegal Activities

Criminals find the NFT craze lucrative, and not a day goes by where someone isn’t ripped off. The current market is full of scams and illegal activities. Wash trading, rug pulls, money laundering and many scams are a daily occurrence and will continue into the foreseeable future.

Not About Artists

Everyone likes to say NFTs are about art and artists, but this evidence doesn’t line up. You create a couple of templates and then let some code create 10,000 permutations. People then buy them with the hopes of flipping them. I’m not saying that an 8bit image or even a computer-generated image can’t be art, but what I am saying is there isn’t any appreciation for art or the artist in the current ecosystem. Refer back to the previous Nature article about the ecosystem.

People buying NFTs think of themselves as investors, not collectors or people who appreciate art. Investors are showing off that they bought something, not showing off the artwork.

Not About Art

On the flip side, most people consuming art, buy it for a purpose. They want to show it on their wall and don’t want to be their own art dealer.

New Promises, Same Problems

In the old days, artists hated the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers were the obstacle holding them back from the masses and success. Today, the gatekeepers have mostly disappeared, and musicians can freely publish their music on platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, and a whole host of others alongside famous artists. The same platforms exist for other types of artists as well. The barriers between artists and consumers have all but disappeared. Success still hasn’t come, now comes the promise of NFTs. New platform, same problems.


The unspoken reality is the vast majority of user-generated content, both creative and non-creative falls in the range from not good to pure garbage. This is an astronomical uphill battle if you are a diamond in the rough. The fact that the content is poor won’t stop people from giving you a platform and making money from it. Dreams rarely turn a profit, but selling people on their dreams has always been profitable. The chain and marketplace always make money, the artist, not so much. Artists still have a lot of heavy lifting to do.

Dreams rarely turn a profit, but selling people on their dreams has always been profitable.


NFTs don’t solve the most significant challenge for most artists. If you are a well-known artist with a following, getting a larger share of proceeds from streams and sales is attractive, but you’ve already passed the most significant hurdle. Most artists would rather have exposure than money. In the case of musicians, they freely give away their music in the hopes that people will listen. These artists are in the “trying to build a following” stage, not the “maximize profits” stage.

Reality Denial

As an outside observer, one of the biggest things irking people about NFTs is the complete denial of reality in the ecosystem. Fanatical collectors are willing to lose family members or even wish another pandemic upon the world, all so that their NFTs will rise in value.

Reality Denial
Reality Denial

It would be foolish to dismiss NFTs completely

It would be foolish to dismiss NFTs completely. NFTs are a technology experiment, and like most technology experiments, the initial iteration often doesn’t resemble the end result. I think this is what frustrates me about the current state of NFTs. It’s all hype, but the technology actually has some pretty cool use cases.


If you look at what NFTs are, it’s not hard to see how they could be a utility with additional value. So, NFTs will morph into a value add vs. a thing of value.


Companies are already experimenting with these concepts. A couple of unique examples are Nike with their CryptoKicks or something like TechStyles for the resell market. We’ll see more of this experimentation from companies in the future.

New Revenue Streams

Even though NFTs aren’t about art, NFTs do create new potential revenue streams. Companies who want to launch NFTs may commission people to create NFTs for product launches and other promotional activities. This type of work will increase, and today you can even find people on Fiver who’ll create these NFT collections for you.

If Kia wants to launch an NFT to go along with a new vehicle, they’ll need someone to help them with that, either on staff or as a contractor. Just don’t rip them off this time 🙂

Conclusion

Whether you are all in on NFTs or all against, it’s good to keep Amara’s Law in mind. The next couple of years will be interesting to see where NFTs head. We’ll see a transformation of the original concept into more value-added technology, so please, don’t talk your parents into converting their retirement savings into a pixelated image.

Shout out to the @CoinersTakingLs Twitter account for some of the example tweets used in this post.

By now, you’ve probably heard the term metaverse or the fact that Facebook is rebranding itself to Meta. Metaverse is the hot new buzzword that companies will continue to latch onto. If you are unfamiliar with the metaverse concept, The Verge had a recent article about it called, What Is The Metaverse and Do I have to Care?

I’m not going to retread what the metaverse is in this post, nor will I talk about distributed metaverse projects on the various blockchains. Most average users find blockchain technology too hard to use and certainly don’t own any NFTs. I’ll revisit this when the average user can set up a wallet without losing their recovery passphrase. Facebook has the users, the name, and the integration, so it makes sense to start here.

This post is a quick note about the dangers of a future-state, connected metaverse concept, and integrated tech such as VR and AR. Why would a company like Facebook be so interested in this concept? Let’s have a look.

Best Interest

It amazes me how people believe that these large platforms have their best interests in mind. Yes, this social network with a billion daily users that I pay no money for was built for me to share pictures of my dinner with the world. People are either ignorant or ignore the tradeoffs. Facebook has over 10,000 employees working on VR technology. I’m sure so you can share pictures of your dinner in augmented reality. So, if we apply the same concept of a large social network’s metaverse, then we have to assume they are monetizing their users and their data.

Completely immersive virtual reality has been a tech holy grail since the 1800s and the stereoscope. Given that large tech companies are footing the bill, you can bet that the monetization strategy involves you and your data.

Privacy

Picture yourself going about your day performing activities from the most mundane to the most sensitive. Now, picture someone watching and hearing what you do. If you think that’s scary, it gets worse. All the things we don’t recognize can say the most about who we are. What exactly did you look at? Did your eyes spend a little bit too much time on that advertisement or that person? Did your heart rate rise? Are your activities conducive to a healthy lifestyle, or do they raise the risk of illness?

Micro Scale Surveillance

Now, think about all of the things you don’t tell people and what those insights hold because this is what you disclose to the platform. No matter how mundane you think your activities are, they are interesting to somebody. The connected metaverse offers micro-scale surveillance with access to seemingly innocuous signals on the surface but enriched with other signals. This data is valuable for advertising, insurance, governments, and the list goes on and on—access to this information is provided via payment or force.

There’s no doubt that Facebook knows a lot about you already, too much. Not all of that knowledge is direct; some of it is inferred knowledge. So, it may not be something the platform knows outright but based on other signals, it can infer. The metaverse will flip this around, providing direct access to connected devices.

What will make the metaverse dangerous from a privacy perspective is deep integration with devices, extended engagement and the monetization of the platform. You combine signals from multiple devices and centralize them on a platform giving direct access for analysis and enrichment.

Your first question may be, why would anyone connect all their devices to their account in the first place? Well, many people already do, but the longer answer is because of some perceived benefit. People already connect their refrigerators to the Internet. Maybe the more devices you attach, the platform promises a better experience. It could also be for gamification reasons, like competing against friends and racking up some points or virtual street cred. Maybe you attach your smart refrigerator to the metaverse to show off how many salads you have in it. But, in the virtual salad game, you lose points for your kid’s birthday cake, the unintended consequences of poor design. The reality is, the scenarios are endless.

Simplified Scenario

To simplify this, let’s think of the data generated by a set of AR glasses with an always-on microphone and video feed, location services, and a fitness tracker. There’s a massive trove of information here. The camera on the glasses has access to everything in front of your face and tracks where your eyes focus. The microphone hears your voice and ambient sounds, and the location services provide your location via GPS. The fitness tracker has access to your heart rate, 02 levels, movement, and exercise routines.

Eye Tracking

For years, websites and ad agencies have tried to maximize their investments by using tech to determine how long you stay on the page and what part of the web page you spend the most time on. Eye-tracking brings this to a whole new level of accuracy.

With eye-tracking and augmented reality, the tech will know not just in the virtual world but in the real world what you look at and focus on. Since we make conscious and subconscious movements with our eyes, we may not realize the type of preferences we disclose. Which ads do you find the most appealing? Do you prefer men or women? What attire do you like? Another endless and terrifying list.

Look forward to an onslaught of unblockable ads overlaid on your world, all based on subconscious preferences you may not have even known you had. Maybe the ad changes the brunette to a blonde or the skin tone of a person in its attempt to tailor a more attractive ad. This scenario is both a privacy and social risk.

Fitness Tracking

Your fitness tracker says a lot about you. The obvious thing it says is how mobile or sedentary you are. Your workout routines, number of steps you take, heart rate, all of this is valuable data. You might say, “Well, that’s what the fitness tracker is supposed to do.” Correct, but in the connected metaverse concept, you provide direct access and centralization of that data. This access and centralization allow the platform to enrich it with other signals.

Signals from a fitness tracker combined with other data such as eye-tracking and location services enrich the data to new heights. For example, when looking at a person, does your heart rate increase? That’s much more valuable (and sensitive) than just knowing when your heart rate increases.

Location Data

Much has been written about the risks of location data, everything from identifying secret military bases to priests being outed for their use of dating apps. I won’t retread the dangers of location services since much has been written about it already.

In the connected metaverse scenario we’ve discussed, location data is enriched with other data to provide deeper insights than just the location alone. Where you are is combined with what you look at, your reaction, and how often.

Data Leakage and Ownership

If one sure thing in the world, it’s that data will leak. The impact from leakage of a dataset built with more complete data will be worse for individuals.

It’s not just the primary platforms like Meta. It’s also 3rd party developers writing apps to run on the platform. They may also have access to the same signals and may have more nefarious intentions or just worse security practices. Issues with 3rd party applications have been an issue for as long as social networks have allowed them.

Of course, data ownership is still an issue. Who owns the data? Probably not you, even after you exit the platform. Even if the platform deletes the raw data about you, the insights gained and your profile will persist.

Social Issues

There is a non-negligible number of people who’d prefer to be uploaded into their own personal utopia.

If you think about the world today, there is a non-negligible number of people who’d prefer to be uploaded into their own personal utopia. Their avatar represents what they feel they are and what they want the world to see. They’d rather hashtag their way to activism than take meaningful steps to make a difference. One of the greatest cons perpetrated by social networks is convincing people that activism requires no action, even though the word “act” is literally spelled out. “Look, I changed my profile photo in solidarity” or “I posted thoughts and prayers on someone’s timeline,” shouting “look at what a great person I am” into the echo chamber. One thing is for sure, the metaverse will fill with more hollow and pointless gestures that have no effect on the real world, and that’s a problem.

One of the greatest cons perpetrated by social networks is convincing people that activism requires no action.

The Virtual

The more you focus on the virtual world, the less you focus on the real world. We observed this lesson with immersive video games. The real world has immediate problems. No hard problem is ever easy to talk about or solve, and we’ve found unique ways of avoiding them.

Life is tough for many people, especially during a pandemic, so I can’t fault people for wanting an alternative, but this is kind of how you get dystopias. Food for thought, the sci-fi stories of the past that have had metaverse-like concepts have been dystopias.

Real-world experiences are valuable for health, well-being, and personal growth. No virtual experience can even come close, period. Recently, I was in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva. The sun was setting, and I watched the sailboats coming in. The sun behind the clouds showed through with an orange color. I thought it was cool, so I snapped a picture.

Lake Geneva

I can tell you, the picture did not do the experience justice, not just because of my poor photo-taking skills or lack of horizontal orientation (I never meant to share the photo). Everything from the breeze on my face to the ambient sounds of birds in the background created an experience that no picture or video could recreate.

It wasn’t just about the sensations I experienced sitting on the shores of the lake. It was about personal reflection. I spent my time watching the sun go down on a park bench without staring at my phone or any other busy activity. I took time to reflect. The experience was restorative in a way I couldn’t have gotten in any virtual context.

Engagement and Immersion

Facebook’s major goals are engagement and time on the platform. The more time you spend on Facebook engaging with people (positive or negative) the better for them financially. This metric means that Facebook will do its best to create more immersive experiences and allow apps that align with this goal.

The more immersive an experience, the less time for reflection.

The more immersive an experience, the less time for reflection. Think about playing a video game; it’s an activity that keeps you busy with constant activities but doesn’t allow for personal reflection. This is dangerous because being more reflective in our thinking is how we avoid scams and disinformation.

The fact that social networks are an activity, like a game, could be a factor that helps misinformation spread more rapidly.

The fact that social networks are an activity, like a game, could be a factor that helps misinformation spread more rapidly. When you are liking, commenting, and arguing, you aren’t spending time reflecting. You are leading with emotions and personal biases, the same things that adversaries exploit. We will see new attacks since increased engagement opens the door to enhanced manipulation, whether by advertising or adversaries.

Ultra-Customization, Ultra-Radicalization

Ultra-customization amplifies your biases. Your opinions will be shaped by the content you see, meaning you could be further isolated from reality. Many people will also choose not to participate. Your view of the world will be shaped by the content you choose to see or the platform chooses to show you for increase engagement.

The world created will be filled with the intentional and unintentional. In the previous section, I mentioned that ads might change based on your subconscious preferences. This feature means your private utopia may lack diversity by design.

Conclusion

The metaverse isn’t going to lift people out of poverty, change the environment, or make the world more equitable. It may, however, con people into feeling as though they are making a difference. Same social media, different wrapper.

This post only scratched the surface of the risks involved, and as I was writing this, I thought of even more. We’ll see more of these issues come to light in the future. I hope that conversations about the risks force these platforms to enforce data and privacy standards. Only time will tell.

While out for a jog the other day, I noticed an older man on a large motorcycle blasting Dubstep obnoxiously loud to the entire neighborhood. The transmission ended when he turned off the bike, but he sat there for a moment with a Sad Keanu look on his face before dismounting and disappearing into his house. Besides making me feel as though I was in a cheesy sitcom, this surreal scenario got me thinking deeper about the ways technology kills novelty.

Dubstep

Ever wonder what happened to Skrillix? Of course, you don’t. You didn’t even notice I spelled his name wrong. There was a year where he won like 5 Grammys, and then nobody talked about him again. If I told you he died years ago, you’d probably believe me. Didn’t you hear? He did something cool, like hiding an album inside a video game or something, and… nobody cared. Skrillex certainly didn’t create Dubstep, but he defined it for a mainstream audience. In the end, technology killed Skrillex. In an ironic twist, the same technology enabled him.

The Death Of Novelty

So, what happened to Dubstep and Skrillex? Massive numbers of people pointed to this as the future of music and how things would never be the same. The disappearance of Dubstep and Skrillex from the mainstream is pretty simple when you reflect on it. The tools used to create music that sounded like Skrillex were easily accessible to anyone, and they took no talent to use. This lead to a deluge of everyone doing the same thing. The same year he won all of those Grammys everything from Kleenex to Clorox used music that sounded exactly like a Skrillex in their commercials. You couldn’t escape those sounds. They were everywhere.

I’m not claiming Skrillex isn’t talented. What I am saying is it doesn’t take any particular talent to sound like Skrillex. The basic tools are a laptop, headphones, and some music software.

Technology removed the barrier to entry, removing the novelty allowing anyone to replicate the sounds of his success. This decrease in friction also accelerated the timeline for replication to a matter of hours. What resulted was an inevitable crash and a quick tiring by the mainstream, but apparently still popular with one particular biker.

Friction Reduction

Overall, reducing friction is a good thing. We certainly wouldn’t want to make it harder for people to get essential services when in need or take long to implement security requirements meant to protect people. But there are cases in which friction does serve a beneficial function.

What we don’t like to realize is that the gatekeepers that everyone liked to hate on so much, although flawed, did serve a purpose in some ways by adding friction. If you don’t believe me, think back to the reaction you had when someone told you that their brother’s friend has a band you should check out.

In the current world, novelty directly relates to value.

It’s important to keep these concepts in mind, because in the current world, novelty directly relates to value.

Talent

Not all friction is bad. Talent, for instance, is friction. When we look at a piece of artwork or a sculpture, we are amazed by the person’s talent. That a human equipped with the same tools as us created such a masterpiece that we couldn’t. I remember standing in front of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in awe that any human could create such a masterpiece, by hand, out of marble.

Imagine I show you a detailed statue like that of Michelangelo and tell you I sculpted it. You’d probably be amazed, or you are terribly hard to impress. Now, imagine I tell you that I 3D printed it. You may still think it was kind of cool, especially if it’s the first one you’ve seen, but not even in the universe of what you thought when I sculpted it. Imagine I told you I downloaded the Michelangelo template set, the same template set that anyone can download. The novelty falls off a sheer cliff. Everyone’s printing Michelangelo’s, and they aren’t worth anything.

Being First

There may be a high value in being first, but there is a steep and unsustainable drop-off afterward. For example, a piece of AI artwork sold at Christie’s for $432k. Don’t expect this to be some sort of trend. It was the first. The article starts with this question, “Is artificial intelligence set to become art’s next medium?” Let me answer that, ah… no. At least not in the way the article is framing it.

Some people think so, and those people are what we call wrong 🙂

Someone also created an NFT of their farts and sold it. Is the person who bought it going to show that NFT to anyone in a year? Am I to believe there will be fart markets in the future for fine purveyors of artisanal gas? Some people think so, and those people are what we call wrong 🙂 When the thing people want to collect is readily available anywhere and everywhere, it loses any value. My mom collected figurines and baby dolls that creeped me out as a kid. Although the items in her collection weren’t highly valuable either, thankfully, they also weren’t easy to get.

What amazes me is that people look at these new concepts, be they creative or technological, and always fall for them, claiming they are the new thing and that’s just how the world is going to be. It boils down to FOMO and a whole lot of wishful thinking. By applying a little thought and analysis, it doesn’t align with the real world.
Whether they be creative arts or technology, things that are easy to recreate or duplicate die a pretty quick death.

Lessons

In summary, any technology or trend based solely on novelty has an incredibly short shelf life if the friction to recreate it is low. This trend is because if everyone is doing something, it’s not novel. Since novelty relates to value, don’t invest your life savings into things that are easily repeatable and have no staying power. Strive to be unique, push yourself beyond the bounds of easy replication and into new areas. That’s where you’ll find success.