AI, AI captain

Artificial Intelligence is appearing everywhere and it is increasingly difficult to stop it seeping into our lives. It learns and grows by observing everything we do, in our work, in our play, in our conversations, in everything we express to our communities and everything that community says to us. We are being watched. Many think it is just a natural progression from what we already created. To me, it is anything but natural.

Spellchecking: an AI precursor

Half a century ago, automatic spell-checking was introduced to word processing systems. Simple pattern matching built into the software enabled it to detect unknown words and suggest similar alternatives. By adding statistical information it could rearrange the alternatives so that the most likely correct word would be suggested first. Expand the statistics to include nearby words and the words typed to date and the accuracy of the spell-checking can become almost prescient. Nevertheless, it is all based on statistical information baked into your software.

But where did those statistics come from? We know that over a thousand years ago the military cryptographers were determining word frequency in various languages as an aid to deciphering battlefield communications. Knowledge of letter, word and phrase frequencies was a key component of the effort to defeat the Enigma machine during World War II. So by the time the word processor was commonplace, the statistical basis of spellchecking was also present. It evolved from hundreds of years of analysis, and one could not in any way discern any of the original analysed text from the resulting statistics.

Grammar checking: pseudo-intelligence

In time, spellcheckers were enhanced with the ability to parse sentences and detect syntactic errors. The language models, lexical analysers, pattern matchers and everything else that goes into a grammar checker can be self-contained. The rules and procedures are generally unchanging, though one could gradually build up some adjustments to the recorded statistics based on previous text that was exposed to the system. It appears somewhat intelligent but only because there is a level of complexity involved that a human might find challenging.

Predictive text: spooky cleverness

Things started to get interesting when predictive text systems became mainstream, especially among mobile device users where text entry was cumbersome. Once again, statistics played a huge role, but over time these systems were enhanced to update themselves based on contemporary analysis. Eventually the emergence of (large) language models “trained” on massive amounts of content (much of it from the Web) enabled these tools to make seemingly mind-reading predictions of the next words you would type. Accepting the predicted text could save time, but sometimes the predictions are wildly off base, or comically distracting. Worse, however, is the risk that as more and more people accept the predicted text the more we lose the unique voice of human writers.

Certain risks surface from the use of predictive text based on public and local content, notably plagiarism and loss of privacy. Unlike the simple letter/word counting of the military cryptographers of the ninth century, today’s writing assistance tools have been influenced by vast amounts of other people’s creative works beyond mere words and its suggestions can be near copies of substantial portions of this material.

While unintended plagiarism is worrying, the potential for one’s own content to become part of an AI’s corpus of knowledge is a major concern. In the AI industry’s endless quest for more training data, every opportunity is being exhausted, whether or not the original creators agree. In many cases the content was created by people long before feeding it to an AI became a realistic possibility. The authors would never have imagined how their work could be used (abused?), and many are no longer with us to voice their opinions on it. If they were asked, that is.

And what of your local content? You might not want to feed that to some AI in the cloud so that it influences what the AI delivers to other people. Maybe it is content that you must protect. Maybe you are both morally and legally obliged to protect it. In that case, knowing that an AI is nearby you would take precautions to not expose your sensitive content to such an AI. Right?

Embedded AI: the hidden danger

What if the AI were embedded in many of the tools at your disposal? Protecting your sensitive content (legal correspondence, medical reports etc.) from the “eyes” of an AI would be challenging. Your first task would to make yourself aware of its presence. That, unfortunately, is where it is getting harder every day.

Microsoft introduced Windows Copilot in 2023, including the business versions of their Office suite, meaning that AI is present in your computer’s operating system and your main productivity tools. Thankfully it’s either an optional feature or a paid-for feature so you are not forced to use it. But that may change.

A particularly worrying development, and the motivation behind this post, is Adobe’s recent announcement (Feb 2024) of its AI Assistant embedded into Acrobat and Reader. These are the tools that most people use to create and read PDF documents. It will allow the user to easily search through a PDF document for important information (not just simple pattern searching), create short summaries of the content and much more. Adobe states that the new AI is “governed by data security protocols and no customer document content is stored or used for training AI Assistant without their consent”. It’s currently in beta, and when it is finally released it will be a paid-for service.

Your consent regarding the use of AI is all-or-nothing because you accept (or reject) certain terms when you are installing/updating the software. Given how tempting the features are, granting consent could be commonplace. Today you might have nothing sensitive to worry about, so you grant consent. Some time later, when getting one-paragraph summaries of your PDFs seems a natural part of your daily workflow, you might receive something important, sensitive, perhaps something you are legally obliged to protect. You open the PDF and now the AI in the cloud has it too, and there is no way for you to re-cork the genie.

“No AI here”

We are entering choppy waters for sure. Maybe we need something we can add to our content that says “not for AI consumption”? Without such control by authors and readers alike we could be facing a lot more trouble.

Categorised as: Legal and Political, Security, Technology

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