Merchant: Peacock show ‘Mrs. Davis’ has a radical idea for AI – turn it off

Merchant: Peacock show ‘Mrs.  Davis’ has a radical idea for AI – turn it off

Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez weren’t thinking about humanoid chatbots or mind-boggling algorithms when they came up with the idea for a TV series about a powerful artificial intelligence that has delighted users around the world.

It was early 2020 and they were thinking about what we all were: Do I really need to decontaminate my Amazon packages or wear a mask when I go to the mailbox?

Speaking on the phone while walking their dogs, Hernandez joked that he wished there was an app that could tell them what to do. That got them talking, recalls Lindelof: “I wish that existed too. But I wouldn’t trust that, because every app that’s on my phone is there to sell me stuff. What would a benevolent application look like? And what would it take for me to trust him?”

Three years later, the result, “Mrs. Davis”, makes its creators seem pretty prescient. The show, which began streaming on Peacock this week, comes just as OpenAI’s text generator ChatGPT is reaching a peak of hype, Google is launching its own AI program, Bard, and the other tech giants are following suit. This comes as millions of people who have endured a decade of Big Tech misadventures — a decade dealing with Facebook disinformation, the injustices of Amazon and Uber’s algorithmic work regimes, cryptocurrency flaws and monopoly practices — are wondering: what is it? that now? us at least to want AI everywhere?

At the show’s premiere last week at the Director’s Guild Theater in Hollywood, the actors gave that question a real-world illustration: men in nice suits with devices pressed against their ears who would approach guests as they arrived and ask if they didn’t mind if they “looked up” — the way the titular AI speaks through its users on the show — producing laughs and discomfort in equal measure.

the show is generating wide buzz and good reviews. Showrunner Hernandez is an alumnus of “The Big Bang Theory” and co-creator Lindelof is the man behind “Lost” and “Watchmen.”

I, for one, was irritated. Here was a show about an all-powerful AI that is more TikTok than SkyNet, a show that seeks to immerse and entertain, not kill or overwhelm, a show that has a good grasp on why we use the apps and consumer technology we make, why we let them into our lives, and why we become obsessed with it – and it sends the hero on a quest to end it all.

This is a powerful idea right now, and it also has a real-world parallel – some of the world’s most influential tech personalities, including Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, recently signed an open letter urging a six-month halt in AI development. The signers’ intentions may or may not be pure (Musk is developing his own AI chatbot at the same time he’s asking others to stop), but we rarely get big moments like this. Not just to consider whether a given technology will be good or bad for society, but if we want to satisfy you at all.

“It was an anxiety of ours, an anxiety that we could get to this place,” Hernandez tells me of what she and Lindelof were channeling in their early conversations. “I don’t know if we necessarily predicted that April 2023 would come and, lo and behold, we’re launching our program at the same time, but it certainly seemed possible.”

While “Mrs. Davis” was brooding, Big Tech headlines were about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and how social media sites were collecting data “not just to sell us stuff, but to sell us ideas,” says Lindelof.

At Mrs. Davis world, users refer to the ubiquitous AI as if “she” were a person, and protagonist Sister Simone keeps correcting them: Not her, “this.” (“No one calls Facebook ‘Doug’!” spits one of the anti-AI resistance leaders.)

But people tend to trust other people, not machines, and the more human a program feels, the more eager we are to get involved. It’s a narrative choice that seems especially salient now given the rise of AI chatbots, whose power lies largely in their ability to convince users that they possess infinite knowledge and an identifiable personality, a power that tech companies will use to sell, among other things, ideas to their users.

Dazzling new technology can seem indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C. Clarke noted, and stage magicians figure in “Mrs. Davis.” Their presence underscores one of creators’ biggest concerns about technology, Lindelof says: “We’re being ‘forced’ in the way that magicians use ‘forces’ to make us choose cards, that these decisions we are making are actually generated algorithmically rather than our own will?

After Mrs. Davis dramatically sends Simone on a quest to find the Holy Grail, she discovers that the AI ​​does things like this all the time. In her attempts to keep her user base engaged, Ms. Davis creates quests and chooses “main characters” to focus attention on, and a nun who despises AI makes great content. Because the grail quest narrative appears in so many corpus of data, the algorithm uses this a lot too – the AI ​​loves clichés.

I can’t tell you how much I love it. I skipped through the eight episodes whenever my schedule allowed. Part of that is because the story takes some real turns – the show is wacky, surreal and satirical – and part of that is because it was nice to be in the hands of writers who had an understanding (and critical) of their technology.

But the biggest reason I was rooting for it was because Simone is, essentially, a Luddite. And most people misunderstand Luddites. “Mrs. Davis” no.

“Simone basically became our way of creating a construct of, ‘Someone can just show up and determine whether this thing should be turned on or off — but man, I hope it actually turns off!’” Lindelof says. “Because we need someone to do it for us.”

Well, I’ve spent the last three years researching and writing a book about machine circuit breakers who organized a rebellion at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so I can tell you how rare this is. The Luddites were not, according to popular mythology, anti-technology idiots who destroyed machines because they didn’t understand them. Like Simone, they had specific complaints about how Special technologies were transforming society, degrading their jobs and imposing control over them – and they fought deliberately and strategically. When I mention the Luddite parallel to Lindelof and Hernandez, they light up.

“This thing happens when you’re out of cell phone range and you don’t have bars,” says Lindelof. “You experience 10 minutes of panic, and right after the panic comes relief. That’s what the Luddites were looking for, to create relief. A reconnection with nature, a reconnection with the other. This thing that we’re really looking forward to – we understand that a lot of our arguments for technology are hollow.”

There is a shared cultural hunger, he says, for what is essentially the power to say no, as the Luddites did, to the dominance of social apps, perhaps, and to an entity like Mrs. Davis, which would overload them with AI. Throughout the conversation, Lindelof mentions data mining, ads, misinformation, and specifically screen addiction. “All the single parents I talk to say, ‘I feel like my son is on screen too much and I feel like I am on my screen too much and it’s out of control, and I don’t know how to get control.’ We don’t have the institutional power.”

In “Mrs. Davis”, Simone and the rebels are fighting for that kind of power.

“Perhaps we would like to see each other more often in the physical world if we didn’t have those things,” says Lindelof. “But no one is trying to make that argument anymore; we’re all just resigned to it. And it’s important that we all stop and take a deep breath and say, what is this, the old saying in all kinds of different stories? ‘Just because we can, does that mean we should?’”

After all, there are a number of legitimate concerns to be had with this sudden rise in AI. a recent article showed how the vast majority of AI services are concentrated in just a handful of big tech companies, who control the systems and how they are deployed – and profit the most from them. AI text and image generators to threaten reduce wages for copywriters, accountants, illustrators, and countless others, as they steal your intellectual property in the process. Misinformation, bad code, and identity theft can spread like wildfire, while underpaid human moderators desperately try to keep the worst content at bay. Plenty of reasons to join Simone and the resistance rebels, in other words.

Like Simone and the Luddites, this does not mean that Lindelof and Hernandez are opposed to all uses of technology, or even all uses of AI – far from it. In his own industry, which is bracing for the arrival of generative AI, Lindelof says he’s open to “interesting half-measures,” like using ChatGPT to seed ideas in the writer’s room and general experimentation. “It’s the old hammer as a tool, right? You can use it to build a house, or you can use it to crush someone’s brains. It’s in our hands. And so what are we going to do with this thing? ChatGPT no to want make movies, this doesn’t want anything. Us they want things.” Human beings have to come first.

“There is no artificial intelligence capable of making the world’s biggest cheeseburger unless a human makes the world’s biggest cheeseburger and you program code to replicate that idea,” says Lindelof. “Because to make the world’s greatest cheeseburger, you have to be creative and you have to beta test it and you have to get humans to prove it and that’s something that AI will never be able to do – taste a cheeseburger.”

“I will just add that the best cheeseburger in the world he does exist,” Hernandez chimes in, “and it’s an In-N-Out burger.”

“Mrs. Davis” is a lot of things – we haven’t even talked about the show’s religious dimensions yet, which invite questions about what other frameworks “force” our decision-making, and have long predated consumer technology. But it’s the show’s awareness that AI will never experience In-N-Out that resonates after the credits roll. he can to oppose the mass proliferation of this unconscious hamburger AI, which is entirely within our ability to do so, if we so choose.

Even when it seems like an uphill battle. After the lights came up at the end of the premiere, people started moving towards the aisles. The proxy guys in nice suits were nowhere to be seen, and it was still only a matter of seconds before everyone’s rectangles lit up across the theater.

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