AI keeps going wrong. What if it can’t be fixed?

The chatbot was speaking complete gibberish. “To rev the virgate, it’s enley to instil group danters,” it told one user. “I’m by. I’m in. I’m for, I’m from, I’m that,” it told another. 

Some users joked that it had ingested acid — or too much James Joyce. Others found that it spoke like an English tourist in Marbella: “Muchas gracias for your understanding, y I’ll ensure we’re being as crystal-clear como l’eau from now on.” It was February 21, and ChatGPT was broken. 

OpenAI, which runs ChatGPT, admitted the problem and fixed it quickly — which is perhaps the least you’d expect from a company recently valued at $80bn. It explained that an update had “introduced a bug with how the model processes language”.

Even so, ChatGPT’s less dramatic shortcomings remain a routine occurrence. It now has to answer queries with caveats and context, inserted as safety features. “Is it just me or is ChatGPT4 getting less good at its job? More and more obtuse?” physicist David Deutsch, an early adopter of tech, complained last month.

ChatGPT also regularly “hallucinates” — that is, it makes up incorrect information. Asked to generate scientific abstracts, it invented 30 per cent of the references; there was no real improvement between the performance of version 3.5 and version 4. 

You can try this yourself by asking ChatGPT to name British prime ministers with two T’s in their name. Its answer is worth quoting in full: “1. Margaret Thatcher 2. Winston Churchill (while his full name does not have two “t”s, his last name does) 3. Tony Blair 4. Matt Hancock (Note: As of my last update in April 2023, Matt Hancock has not served as prime minister, but he is included here for completeness in case of any confusion or future relevance.)” 

The point is not whether Matt Hancock has any future relevance (although it’s worth noting that by April 2023 he had already announced he was quitting as a member of parliament). No, what’s interesting is the wider implication. 

How do we respond to technology that is both brilliant and half-formed? It’s not just ChatGPT. Google had to take its AI photo generator Gemini offline, after it produced historically inaccurate and offensive images, such as black people as Nazis. Such tools fail in one clear way: they aren’t reliable enough to be used widely and regularly. Hence the joke, echoed by OpenAI’s co-founder Sam Altman himself: AI is anything that doesn’t work yet. 

The most popular response is to assume the tools will improve. We’ve been through this before. Wikipedia was once a punchline; now (thanks to human labour), it’s invaluable. ChatGPT’s usage has fallen after an initial surge — but it’s early days. On December 5 2000, The Daily Mail ran the headline: “Internet ‘may be just a passing fad as millions give up on it’.” Both AI optimists and pessimists assume that technology will march on this time too. Elon Musk recently predicted: “AI will probably be smarter than any single human next year.” Geoffrey Hinton, a former Google engineer, has warned that it may wipe out humanity. 

But the AI hype of the last year has also opened up demand for a rival perspective: a feeling that tech might be a bit disappointing. In other words, not optimism or pessimism, but scepticism. If we judge AI just by our own experiences, the future is not a done deal. 

Perhaps the noisiest AI questioner is Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist who co-founded an AI start-up and sold it to Uber in 2016. Altman once tweeted, “Give me the confidence of a mediocre deep-learning skeptic”; Marcus assumed it was a reference to him. He prefers the term “realist”.

He is not a doomster who believes AI will go rogue and turn us all into paper clips. He wants AI to succeed and believes it will. But, in its current form, he argues, it’s hitting walls. 

Today’s large language models (LLMs) have learnt to recognise patterns but don’t understand the underlying concepts. They will therefore always produce silly errors, says Marcus. The idea that tech companies will produce artificial general intelligence by 2030 is “laughable”.

Generative AI is sucking up cash, electricity, water, copyrighted data. It is not sustainable. A whole new approach may be needed. Ed Zitron, a former games journalist who is now both a tech publicist and a tech critic based in Nevada, puts it more starkly: “We may be at peak AI.”

Column chart of Investment into generative AI ($bn) showing Big tech investors push generative AI fundraising to record highs

Such scepticism is attractive, partly because it punctures the self-importance of tech leaders such as Altman and Musk. Who doesn’t enjoy pouring cold water on smug billionaires? Who doesn’t sometimes console themselves with the thought that things may stay as they are? Even if we don’t explicitly articulate that sceptical approach, we implicitly endorse it with our behaviour. We don’t do very much to adapt to AI (or climate change) because we can’t quite believe upheaval until it arrives.

But scepticism is also hard because tech is improving so fast. In 2013, Marcus wrote about how Google’s powerful search engine could not answer questions that adults had not asked themselves before, such as: Can an alligator run the 100-metre hurdles? Now ChatGPT can answer that question easily. 

Even tech optimists find themselves caught out. Meta’s head of AI, Yann LeCun, told world leaders on February 13 that a text-to-video generating AI service was not possible: “Basically we don’t know how to do this.” A few days later, OpenAI revealed its text-to-video model, Sora. If you loudly say that AI will never be able to do something, there’s the chance that someone in Silicon Valley is laughing.

Marcus says LeCun’s language was “sloppy”. Sora isn’t yet publicly available, and already some of its flaws are obvious. It doesn’t incorporate the laws of physics. It produced a 7×7 chessboard with three kings. “Things defy gravity.” 

Far from being bowed, Marcus is emboldened. He picks up on recent comments by OpenAI’s Altman, refusing to give a timeline for the next major update to ChatGPT. Demis Hassabis, co-founder of Google DeepMind, has said that getting to artificial general intelligence will probably require “several more innovations”. The money pumped into AI brings “a whole attendant bunch of hype and maybe some grifting,” he has complained.

“Everyone said I was crazy,” says Marcus. “A surprisingly large number of people have converged on the things that I’ve been saying all along.” His alligator test was beaten, but its “spirit” was not. “I predicted hallucinations in 2001 . . . I don’t lose any sleep that tomorrow hallucinations will be stopped.”  

From one perspective, tech scepticism is bizarre. Two decades ago, we didn’t even have iPhones. But it’s precisely because of the iPhone revolution that today’s tech can seem underwhelming. The Apple Watch turned out to be a glorified step-counter. The Vision Pro, Apple’s new headset, doesn’t seem to be the best use of $3,499. The metaverse is lonelier than a vegetarian at Nando’s. 

This week, Amazon said it would stop using its much-hyped checkout-less technology in its US supermarkets. The tech seemed sophisticated, but it relied on more than 1,000 people in India watching videos of shoppers and labelling their actions.

There are precedents for scepticism. In 1970, AI pioneer Marvin Minsky predicted: “In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.” Oops. In 2016 Tesla said that all its new cars had the hardware necessary to drive themselves more safely than humans could. Oops again. “I have been saying since 2016 [that self-driving cars] are not going to happen next year,” says Marcus. 

Another succour to sceptics is crypto. For many years, cryptocurrency was hyped by very clever people in Silicon Valley. It was presented as inevitable. Its workings were glossed over. If you asked about its precise applications, its very clever champions would almost roll their eyes: wasn’t it obvious? Crypto was a revolution. The blockchain, an associated technology, could rewire everything.

AI and crypto are born of the same milieu. OpenAI’s Altman co-founded a cryptocurrency called Worldcoin in 2019. (Worldcoin scans users’ eyeballs, so that it can distinguish human users from machines. This month Spanish regulators ordered it to stop operating in Spain on privacy grounds.)

Like crypto, AI has identifiable flaws. LLMs such as OpenAI’s can’t digest all human knowledge. They are trained on sets of available data — words, images and audio, but not the direct interaction with the physical world. Even if you pump in more data, can you address the limitations? 

On their podcast Mystery AI Hype Theater 3000, linguist Emily Bender and sociologist Alex Hanna try to pick apart AI bombast — including a Google executive’s claim that computers have already obtained artificial general intelligence, and a Goldman Sachs prediction that AI will replace one-quarter of current work. 

“It’s true that these things can extrude plausible-sounding text on a very wide variety of topics, but that’s general mimicry that isn’t necessarily worth anything,” says Bender. “The burden of proof lies with the people making the extraordinary claims . . . No one is saying AI is hype, we’re saying that your claims of AI are hype.”

Gary Marcus suggests performance may get worse: LLMs produce untrustworthy output, which is then sucked back into other LLMs. The models become permanently contaminated. Scientific journals’ peer-review processes will be overwhelmed, “leading to a precipitous drop in reputation”, Marcus wrote recently.

The sceptics’ other recourse is to ask whether people are actually using AI. How many people do you know who use ChatGPT regularly? “I wish it could do the boring parts of my job for me, but it can’t,” says Zitron. Marcus has picked up on a prediction that AI was so good at analysing MRI and CT scans that it would put radiologists out of work. In 2022, he wrote that: “Not a single radiologist has been replaced.” 

There are other examples. Zitron cites a study by Boston Consulting Group, which found that consultants who used ChatGPT to help solve business problems performed 23 per cent worse than those who didn’t use it. (BCG did find that the tool increased performance in product innovation by 40 per cent.) 

Plenty of the public are in effect AI sceptics. Roughly one-third of Americans say that AI will make outcomes better for patients, another third say it will make outcomes worse, and the rest say it won’t make much difference. 

What would vindicate the sceptics is a blowout: a WeWork-style bankruptcy at a major AI player. It’s possible. Their computing costs are enormous. The chief executive of StabilityAI, an image generator once valued at $1bn, resigned last month after investors chafed at the lack of revenues.

Moreover, AI companies face legal actions from various copyright-holders. One of the lawsuits, by the Authors Guild, accuses OpenAI of “systematic theft on a mass scale”. Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm full of tech optimists, has warned: “The bottom line is this: imposing the cost of actual or potential copyright liability on the creators of AI models will either kill or significantly hamper their development.”

But that reads like self-interested alarmism. Mary Rasenberger, chief executive of the Authors Guild, points out that OpenAI is already negotiating licences with news providers. 

She says it “has plenty of money” to license books. Ed Newton-Rex, founder of Fairly Trained, a non-profit that certifies AI companies’ training practices, says that — if companies were to pay for licences — “progress in the LLM industry would be delayed, but in the medium term we would still end up with extremely capable models” (Rasenberger adds that ChatGPT and others would face restrictions on how they used copyrighted data: they would not, for example, be able to provide text in the style of a certain author.)

For AI believers, meanwhile, vindication could come in the form of the rollout of a high-profile AI-based product. Google DeepMind’s Hassabis says that within a couple of years there will be AI-designed drugs in clinical trials. (Marcus’s response: “The question is whether they work.”) 

If history is any guide, vindication for either side will only be partial. Most likely, the conversation will move on. AI will become embedded in lots of behind-the-scenes tools that we take for granted. Rather than focus on whether optimists, pessimists or sceptics were right, we will focus on what’s next. Will AI reach artificial general intelligence, ie match humans on a range of cognitive tests? 

On that question, the pool of sceptics is much larger. Google engineer François Chollet is among those who argue there is no direct path from LLMs to AGI: “In 2033 it will seem utterly baffling how a bunch of tech folks lost their minds over text generators.”

Marcus has offered Elon Musk a $10mn wager on whether AI will exceed human intelligence by 2025. “It’s about accountability, rather than competition or money.” Marcus complains that people have learnt that they can “drive up their stock prices” with overhyped promises. 

But such a bet will likewise settle little. Musk has regularly missed deadlines for Tesla innovations. Tesla is still the US’s leading maker of electric cars, and Musk is worth $183bn. Similarly, in the scheme of things, it seems rather academic if artificial general intelligence arrives in 2030 or 2040. 

I ask Zitron if he’s afraid of being wrong. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong — I don’t care. If I’m wrong, I’ll write about that.” 

Recently scepticism has got a bad name, because of how easily its followers have veered into conspiracism: doubting credible information about climate, vaccines and Ukraine. AI scepticism has so far avoided this fate. Marcus simply argues that we don’t need to suspend judgment about LLMs. “We do know how these architectures work. We have enormous evidence to say that hallucinations aren’t going anywhere. They’re very good mimics with little comprehension of what’s being said.” 

At the same time, sceptics often blur a questioning of the tech itself with a dislike of the companies behind it. The industry hasn’t lost its soul: it’s sold it to venture capitalists, who don’t care about the user experience. The sceptics recoil at the money being pumped into AI, while thousands of tech workers are made redundant. They refuse to accept that people such as Altman should be allowed to plough ahead unfettered; they reject the fawning media coverage that he receives. 

Zitron grew up in the UK. He remembers Jeremy Paxman’s famously aggressive Newsnight interview with the then home secretary Michael Howard. “I want that — with Sam Altman.” At its heart, AI scepticism is an insistence that, whatever machines the gods of Silicon Valley make, they themselves are just humans. 

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

Video: AI: a blessing or curse for humanity? | FT Tech

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