I am old enough to remember when pleading emails from Nigerian princes locked out of their multi-million fortunes weren’t just a meme.
They actually showed up in your inbox.
Curiously, the initial giveaway with those emails wasn’t even the craziness of the claim.
(The gist of which was that you, Mr Nobody Orother of Upper Nowheresville, was the only hope this poor man had of releasing his fortune – if only you could wire him £10,000 to facilitate the transfer).
No, what marked the emails out was they were invariably shot through with spelling and grammatical errors.
It seemed odd, given the supposed importance of the communication.
Indeed it seemed odd from the perspective of perpetuating a crime.
Did fluent English-speaking Nigerians refuse to work with fraudsters?
Was there something about fraud that caused a word-perfect email to decay into a tell-tale red-pen-fest for any teacher of 12-year olds?
Had the emails been copied and pasted too many times?
Or was it some elaborate way the fraudsters had to track who’d been sent what email, before the coming of marketing response analytics? The same way publishers will put a spelling mistake into a dictionary to spot and prove a counterfeit?
We never learned, as far as I know.
But at least the incompetence made deleting the emails easy.
Death by botulism
Thirty years on, and armies of impersonators assail us on the Internet.
Or rather, they assail our digital identities as we parade them on Twitter or in the comments of a YouTube video.
Casually called bots, they’re nothing like the Robbie the Robots of 1950’s imagination.
Rather these are one-trick one-track ponies whose sole function appears to be to sing the praises of Putin or else tout crypto.
For now pattern recognition again matches and dispatches them.
But for how long?
Anyone who has played with language prediction models like GPT-3 knows they are becoming scarily good at stringing sentences together.
Indeed while many in the field of AI have been complacently (to my eyes, anyway) shrugging their shoulders at the speedy rise of these potential Turing Test busters, at least one Google employee got the sack for saying his favourite chatbot seemed sentient.
An interesting discussion for another day. (Although not one to have with your GPT-3 bromance buddy if you want to keep your job…)
For the purposes of this post I’m more concerned about the apparently imminent chatbot-singularity.
Ticked off bots
That’s not an official term, incidentally – chatbot-singularity.
It’s a phrase I’ve just coined to describe when as many neural net chatbots as can be pumped out are wandering around the Internet indistinguishable from humans.
Indistinguishable at least to anyone but professional AI-witch hunters.
(Think Blade Runner. But with less film noir and nudity.)
After the chatbot-singularity, it will be really hard to know who is human online. Let alone who is the dog of New Yorker cartoon fame.
And it gets tricksier.
Researchers have been trying to train digital agents for years to start their knowledge (/language) land-grab with a keyboard and mouse.
In other words, before you throw the whole Internet at your natural language model so it can learn how to answer anything (which, yes, is what’s going on and if you’ve not been keeping up then your blown mind is excused) you first let it learn about pointers on screens and QWERTY keyboards.
It’s laborious, but once achieved a natural language model could then be prompted to do active things on the Internet that are again indistinguishable (from the Internet’s perspective) to a human.
You think I exaggerate?
As Lex Fridman recently pointed out in a podcast that covered all this territory, how many times have you ticked a box on a data entry form to ‘prove’ you’re not a robot?
Yes, that’s literally the test.
You supply no proof. Being able to tick the box is proof enough.
I’d say that particular security barrier hasn’t got long left to live.
Muse on this for a few minutes and I suspect you’ll end up reaching the same conclusion as me.
Which is that you’re eventually going to have to show your passport or your driver’s license to write a post on Reddit.
Not literally. But in some digital form.
Because Reddit (presumably, though we’ll see how society progresses…) doesn’t want robots writing posts as if they were human.
Which chatbots can pretty much now do. (In fact, they can interview each other, complete with deep fake voice impersonations).
And once they can get themselves email addresses and jump through human-ish hoops with their keyboard and mouse skillz, the walls keeping out their conversations will crumble.
So yeah, after that you’ll need to show you are you.
Probably you’ll authenticate a device at first. Your phone or your laptop. But if you use some other device you’ll have to re-authenticate.
Eventually it’ll be biometric, maybe linked to wearables.
The point is some node on The Internet won’t have to compare the data coming from you to the data from Joe Terminator to decide which of you is flesh-and-blood.
You’ll have proven that at some previous stage in the chain, via your birth certificate or whatever, and you’ll point to the proof to continue.
You and whose army?
What if you want an AI agent to do your bidding?
Isn’t any code that interacts with other code on the Internet a bot from this perspective?
Which means traces of you-proof will probably be encoded into anything you initiate and launch on the Internet.
Perhaps absolutely everything you do digitally.
At a simultaneously more concrete and more trivial level, you’ll also eventually own personality-complete human-like chatbots who know what you like, and do stuff for you. They’ll be knitted to you and your reputation the way the valets of old were tied to their masters.
We’re just too slow and digitally cumbersome for this not to be part of our increasingly digital future.
So people or systems (with the right permissions) will have to be able to see they’re your bots, via the integrated you-proof they carry.
A brave new world where your digital DNA leaves traces everywhere.
Oh, and did a thinking bubble just appear above your head complete with the words Use Case For The Blockchain?
Yes I’m inclined to agree.