PB February/March 2024 February/March 2024 53
During the Dublin Riots, emergency services,
fire brigade and Garda continued to send out
updates on X/Twitter. But no one saw them,
because the algorithm fills timelines with
popular tweets, typically angry ones, not news
few summers ago, walking around an
agricultural show on a sunny Sunday
afternoon with the smell of fresh cut
grass in the air, I came across a
vendor selling candy floss, proudly
labelled “Fat Free” and “Gluten Free”. In the same
way, every Silicon Valley huckster and app seller
is rushing to slap an “AI” over any product with
an algorithm.
And with predictable regularity, news outlets
are full of opinion columns and politicians
clutching pearls and firing up a moral panic.
So is there really something to worry about or
to put it another way, is there anything new to
worry about?
There are some who argue everything AI does,
any reasonably adept artist could already do with
Photoshop and similar eects. Maybe AI does it
faster, but, as anyone who counts using their
fingers has noted, it isn’t necessarily better.
Indeed, this column has previously noted many
claims about the technology make just as much
sense if “AI” is replaced by the words “magic
Even before the wheels came o OpenAI with
the firing of CEO Sam Altman, several
commentators had pointed out “AI” was mostly
a hype cycle, drawing comparisons to the Ponzi-
like cryptocurrency hypes built on blockchain, or
to Theranos, the blood-tests start-up which
achieved a valuation of $10 billion based on
imaginary technologies.
One investment analyst coined the term “grift
shift” to describe the move from crypto to AI in
The problems with AI are cumulative. As search
engines deploy the new technologies to answer
questions from users, websites scramble to
provide content for them.
Since most websites make money from
advertising impressions, generative programmes
are used to populate pages with plausible-
looking text. It isn’t factual information, but so
long as a user clicks a link and leaves a page
impression, the website makes money. And since
the generative programmes work by combing
websites to “learn”, those generated pages
become raw material for the next generation.
Think of the way a photocopy of a photocopy
degrades, except applied to knowledge instead
of ink on a page. The well is poisoned.
Some of the eects become jokes, such as a
screenshot where a Google AI confidently
declares no African country begins with the letter
K, adding “the closest is Kenya, which starts with
a ‘K’ sound, but is actually spelled with a ‘K
This is clearly gibberish, and identifiable as
such by any human reader. But there are more
insidious examples. In the first days of the war in
Gaza, several posters on social media chased
clout by posting footage from video games,
labelling it as images from Gaza. Within days,
magic pixies were confidently asserting the
inverse: that genuine news video was in fact
taken from computer games.
One tech journalist maintains a regularly
updated article chronicling the expanding list of
“mistakes, mishaps, and failures” surrounding
the technology. It’s an educational read, from the
deaths due to “self-driving” cars killing
pedestrians, to false accusations of plagiarism,
fraud and embezzlement, and poisonous cooking
Some experts doubt machine ‘hallucinations
can ever be fixed, even as tech news
enthusiastically reported that OpenAI CEO Sam
Altman had been fired (and rehired) because of
reports the companys AI project had been ‘too
successful’, creating an AI that could “threaten
humanity. We’ve been here before, with Silicon
Valley snake oils ranging from bored apes to
Meta’s adventures in virtual meeting spaces.
Acknowledging Ignorance
You don’t understand
incipient AI, and nor do I,
but whatever it is it’s fast
By Gerard Cunningham
And it’s not all just magic pixies. AI is regularly
weaponised to deliberately spread disinformation
and pollute debate. As has been observed more
than once, the aim of authoritarians is not just to
spread disinformation, but to create uncertainty,
breaking trust.
During the Dublin Riots, emergency services,
fire brigade and Garda continued to send out
updates on X/Twitter. But no one saw them,
because the algorithm fills timelines with popular
tweets, not news.
The algorithm looks for widely shared posts,
and promotes them to users, accelerating the
shares. And rage is a hot emotion, leading people
to share quickly.
The anger machine is designed to find, amplify
and spread heat. Every rumour, every fake or
image, every false report, whether an error or
deliberate, spreads far and fast. The anger
machine spreads heat, not light.
If a lie travels half way around the world before
the truth has its boots on, then AI, with its ability
to generate bullshit a magnitude more quickly,
will circle the globe several times.
Regulators tend to show up a day late, after the
damage is done. And Irish regulators, hampered
by budgets minuscule compared to their Silicon
Valley opponents, and often subject to regulatory
capture, will struggle to keep up.
Regulators may do better in the long-term,
extracting fines at the end of an inquiry process,
but disinformation needs to be corrected fast.
That task falls to journalists, many just as
overworked and under-resourced as internet and
news regulators.


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