Attention, doomsday preppers: forget the gas masks and Spam, and maybe buy some encyclopedias instead.
Now more than ever in our history, humans around the globe — especially those living in wealthy nations — enjoy unfettered access to information, a massive societal shift that's been increasingly ushered forward by technological progress. And it would be hard, if not impossible, to argue that this hasn't been a good thing: knowledge, after all, is power.
But information doesn't exist in a utopian vacuum. It's mediated by a predominantly digital, algorithm-governed ecosystem, where truth and trust are oft-abused currencies and misinformation causes real harm. Bad actors and bad information will always exist, which is why maintaining the general health of that ecosystem — through trust and safety measures, regulation, public information literacy, and so on — is essential.
Now, as the result of the onset of widely available generative AI systems, our information world is going through what appears to be a particularly tricky — and potentially destructive — time. Chatbots have already volleyed bad intel back and forth, a presidential candidate has used unmarked synthetic content in a campaign ad, and information landlords are hurrying to curb AI's impacts while simultaneously rushing generative AI products to market.
It's all pretty messy, not to mention uncertain. And so, like anyone who might store canned food and weapons in a bunker to prepare for a more physical apocalypse, AI reporter Benj Edwards, as he detailed in a recent essay for Ars Technica, decided to take action in the form of a heavy set of... books. Remember those?
"I often write about generative AI tools that could potentially pollute our online spaces (and our historical records) with very convincing fake information. Some people think these tools may destabilize society." Edwards wrote, explaining elsewhere that he's leaning on his new set of encyclopedias as his "antidote to the information apocalypse."
The reporter specifically purchased World Book Encyclopedia, which according to Ars claims to be "the only general reference encyclopedia still published today." Edwards also admitted in the article that in today's day and age, he gets why buying physical encyclopedias might seem ridiculous. They're not cheap, you can almost certainly find the information in them for free online, and besides, they're quickly outdated. News breaks every day; we discover things that change what we understand to be true about our past, and events happen that change the course of our future.
Still, says Edwards, there's something comforting about knowing that the information in your hands is static.
"I'm still optimistic that people who are cognizant of these issues can get through the coming decade with factual electronic knowledge at hand," he wrote. "But just in case I'm wrong, a little voice in the back of my head reasoned that it would be nice to have a good summary of human knowledge in print, vetted by professionals and fixed in a form where it can't be tampered with after the fact — whether by humans, AI, or mere link rot."
Honestly? Edwards might really be onto something. AI presents very real threats to our information passageways, some of which, to a degree, have already been realized. Maybe the internet really will become unusable, search features especially. Or maybe synthetic content will just drive everyone back to the browser bar, where instead of trusting opaque social media sources we'll all scurry to specific news sites that we trust.
Ultimately, though, whether we'll be able to curb generative AI's impacts down the line — once major companies are done shoving as many AI integrations into an unprepared marketplace as they possibly can, that is — is unclear. Regardless, in the meantime, it might be nice to have something real to hold onto.
More on AI and information: OpenAI Warned Microsoft That Its AI Is Absolutely Terrible at Telling the Truth
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