Oh, the humanity

Today was the keynote for Apple's World-Wide Developer Conference 2024, and, as all the pundits predicted, they announced "Apple Intelligence", a new suite of tools building on the current "Artificial Intelligence" hype bubble1. I started out feeling tentatively optimistic that they would continue to use machine learning systems to provide niceties and augmentation — replacing the two-line summary of new mail in Mail.app with auto-summarization, doing automatic segmentation to recolor app icons, improving suggestions of photos from your library that might be fun to look at, better speech-to-text transcription — all of these seemed like totally reasonable features that can be improved by things like vector embeddings, diffusion models, and deep learning transformers.

Then, of course, we actually got to the Apple Intelligence portion of the presentation. In particular, this scene:

Screenshot from WWDC24 of the new text rewriting engine making an email 'Read like a poem'
Fuck. No.

Everybody knows the Steve Jobs line:

Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.

Well, someone took all of the liberal arts people out of the room when they built this feature and let the Wall Street AI hype-men steer the ship. This isn't a bicycle for the mind, this is a steamroller for the mind. It's a bulldozer that's ready to roll right over any remaining trust you have in the written word; it's taking the tools of disinformation and putting them front and center in our friendships and our personal lives.

Imagine the scene: You're sitting down and you open your email client2. You have a swath of machine-generated spam emails in your inbox warning you that you haven't yet donated enough money to the Biden campaign, that you need to ACT NOW, that a Brand™ you purchased from before is having a sale; somehow, you filter through them all to get an email from your good friend Sole and it's got a quirky poem in it inviting you to a barbecue at his house where you can hang out with your friends. Feels good right? Isn't it heartwarming to have that little touch of humanity, to know that Sole spent a few minutes wordsmithing a fun little poem for this invite? Later, you're talking to Sole and you compliment him on the poem; sheepishly, he responds with "Actually, AI wrote that".

How do you feel in this moment? Is there any scenario where you don't feel cheated? Maybe even lied to? You thought you were getting a personal note from a friend, and it's just more stochastic computer-generated spam. Would you ever read Sole's emails again? I know I wouldn't.

I'm sure this feature got a product manager somewhere a big promotion. Heck, I'm sure there are people who have become so inured to everything being algorithmically-generated spam that they won't even notice or mind that their friends are now sending them messages like this. But, Apple's ethos3 has always been about building tools to empower users to make art, to create, to be original. I don't know what this is, but it sure as hell isn't human creativity.

Let's not even talk about these hallucinogenic "Image Playground" results and the real artists whose work was surely purloined to generate them...4

Apple Image Playground
Apple Image Playground (shudder...)

Maybe I'm alone. Maybe nobody else feels the deep and primal outrage at the thought of parents outsourcing their kids' bedtime stories to artificial stupidity, and at the thought of our friends messages to us being mediated by fancy autocomplete. But, damn! The resounding "who cares" from the tech industry over the last few months, the openness to never being able to tell if written text is actually someone's true thoughts or is just adjacent to their thoughts in a 1536-dimensional vector space... it feels a bit like a betrayal. If you decide you want to use these tools, feel free to leave me off your barbecue invite lists, because I don't think we have compatible values.


If you're lucky enough to be out of the loop, this is currently focused on the use of very large neural networks trained on truly enormous volumes of text which are able to do essentially sophisticated autocomplete -- sophisticated enough that people with a really depressing theory-of-mind sometimes believe it's intelligent, even though all it's doing is picking the most statistically-likely next word given the previous words. It's been a real eye-opened watching a lot of business executives give up on the idea that consciousness exists and embrace the idea that a totally deterministic word-picking automaton can replace their workforces.


Assuming you're not one of the many folks who has given up on email entirely and just has a counter of hundreds of thousands of unread missives.


At least, the ethos that their careful marketing team tries to portray. But, I do know people who work at Apple and do more than pay lip service to it!


Let's also not talk about Apple 2030, Apple's pledge to be zero-net-carbon in a scant 6 years, and how this is going to be affected by sending these queries out to OpenAI et al to burn some megawatts on.

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