I assure you, an AI didn’t write a terrible “George Carlin” routine

The Mechanical Turk would like to have a word with all of us.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readJan 29, 2024
A human figure in a crude cardboard robot costume; their bare arms protrude from the main body. The robot’s eyes are holes cut out of a cardboard box; out of those holes peers the red, glaring eyes of HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Image: Cryteria (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAL9000.svg CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en — Ross Breadmore (modified) https://www.flickr.com/photos/rossbreadmore/5169298162/ CC BY 2.0 https://c

THERE’S JUST TWO DAYS left in the Kickstarter for the audiobook for The Bezzle, the sequel to Red Team Blues, narrated by

! You can pre-order the audiobook and ebook, DRM free, as well as the hardcover, signed or unsigned. There’s also bundles with Red Team Blues in ebook, audio or paperback.

On Hallowe’en 1974, Ronald Clark O’Bryan murdered his son with poisoned candy. He needed the insurance money, and he knew that Halloween poisonings were rampant, so he figured he’d get away with it. He was wrong:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Clark_O%27Bryan

The stories of Hallowe’en poisonings were just that — stories. No one was poisoning kids on Hallowe’en — except this monstrous murderer, who mistook rampant scare stories for truth and assumed (incorrectly) that his murder would blend in with the crowd.

Last week, the dudes behind the “comedy” podcast Dudesy released a “George Carlin” comedy special that they claimed had been created, holus bolus, by an AI trained on the comedian’s routines. This was a lie. After the Carlin estate sued, the dudes admitted that they had written the (remarkably unfunny) “comedy” special:

https://arstechnica.com/ai/2024/01/george-carlins-heirs-sue-comedy-podcast-over-ai-generated-impression/

As I’ve written, we’re nowhere near the point where an AI can do your job, but we’re well past the point where your boss can be suckered into firing you and replacing you with a bot that fails at doing your job:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/01/15/passive-income-brainworms/#four-hour-work-week

AI systems can do some remarkable party tricks, but there’s a huge difference between producing a plausible sentence and a good one. After the initial rush of astonishment, the stench of botshit becomes unmistakable:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/jan/03/botshit-generative-ai-imminent-threat-democracy

Some of this botshit comes from people who are sold a bill of goods: they’re convinced that they can make a George Carlin special without any human intervention and when the bot fails, they manufacture their own botshit, assuming they must be bad at prompting the AI.

This is an old technology story: I had a friend who was contracted to livestream a Canadian awards show in the earliest days of the web. They booked in multiple ISDN lines from Bell Canada and set up an impressive Mbone encoding station on the wings of the stage. Only one problem: the ISDNs flaked (this was a common problem with ISDNs!). There was no way to livecast the show.

Nevertheless, my friend’s boss’s ordered him to go on pretending to livestream the show. They made a big deal of it, with all kinds of cool visualizers showing the progress of this futuristic marvel, which the cameras frequently lingered on, accompanied by overheated narration from the show’s hosts.

The weirdest part? The next day, my friend — and many others — heard from satisfied viewers who boasted about how amazing it had been to watch this show on their computers, rather than their TVs. Remember: there had been no stream. These people had just assumed that the problem was on their end — that they had failed to correctly install and configure the multiple browser plugins required. Not wanting to admit their technical incompetence, they instead boasted about how great the show had been. It was the Emperor’s New Livestream.

Perhaps that’s what happened to the Dudesy bros. But there’s another possibility: maybe they were captured by their own imaginations. In “Genesis,” an essay in the 2007 collection The Creationists, EL Doctorow (no relation) describes how the ancient Babylonians were so poleaxed by the strange wonder of the story they made up about the origin of the universe that they assumed that it must be true. They themselves weren’t nearly imaginative enough to have come up with this super-cool tale, so God must have put it in their minds:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/04/29/gedankenexperimentwahn/#high-on-your-own-supply

That seems to have been what happened to the Air Force colonel who falsely claimed that a “rogue AI-powered drone” had spontaneously evolved the strategy of killing its operator as a way of clearing the obstacle to its main objective, which was killing the enemy:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/06/04/ayyyyyy-eyeeeee/

This never happened. It was — in the chagrined colonel’s words — a “thought experiment.” In other words, this guy — who is the USAF’s Chief of AI Test and Operations — was so excited about his own made up story that he forgot it wasn’t true and told a whole conference-room full of people that it had actually happened.

Maybe that’s what happened with the George Carlinbot 3000: the Dudesy dudes fell in love with their own vision for a fully automated luxury Carlinbot and forgot that they had made it up, so they just cheated, assuming they would eventually be able to make a fully operational Battle Carlinbot.

That’s basically the Theranos story: a teenaged “entrepreneur” was convinced that she was just about to produce a seemingly impossible, revolutionary diagnostic machine, so she faked its results, abetted by investors, customers and others who wanted to believe:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theranos

The thing about stories of AI miracles is that they are peddled by both AI’s boosters and its critics. For boosters, the value of these tall tales is obvious: if normies can be convinced that AI is capable of performing miracles, they’ll invest in it. They’ll even integrate it into their product offerings and then quietly hire legions of humans to pick up the botshit it leaves behind. These abettors can be relied upon to keep the defects in these products a secret, because they’ll assume that they’ve committed an operator error. After all, everyone knows that AI can do anything, so if it’s not performing for them, the problem must exist between the keyboard and the chair.

But this would only take AI so far. It’s one thing to hear implausible stories of AI’s triumph from the people invested in it — but what about when AI’s critics repeat those stories? If your boss thinks an AI can do your job, and AI critics are all running around with their hair on fire, shouting about the coming AI jobpocalypse, then maybe the AI really can do your job?

https://locusmag.com/2020/07/cory-doctorow-full-employment/

There’s a name for this kind of criticism: “criti-hype,” coined by Lee Vinsel, who points to many reasons for its persistence, including the fact that it constitutes an “academic business-model”:

That’s four reasons for AI hype:

  1. to win investors and customers;
  2. to cover customers’ and users’ embarrassment when the AI doesn’t perform;
  3. AI dreamers so high on their own supply that they can’t tell truth from fantasy;
  4. A business-model for doomsayers who form an unholy alliance with AI companies by parroting their silliest hype in warning form.

But there’s a fifth motivation for criti-hype: to simplify otherwise tedious and complex situations. As Jamie Zawinski writes, this is the motivation behind the obvious lie that the “autonomous cars” on the streets of San Francisco have no driver:

https://www.jwz.org/blog/2024/01/driverless-cars-always-have-a-driver/

GM’s Cruise division was forced to shutter its SF operations after one of its “self-driving” cars dragged an injured pedestrian for 20 feet:

https://www.wired.com/story/cruise-robotaxi-self-driving-permit-revoked-california/

One of the widely discussed revelations in the wake of the incident was that Cruise employed 1.5 skilled technical remote overseers for every one of its “self-driving” cars. In other words, they had replaced a single low-waged cab driver with 1.5 higher-paid remote operators.

As Zawinski writes, SFPD is well aware that there’s a human being (or more than one human being) responsible for every one of these cars — someone who is formally at fault when the cars injure people or damage property. Nevertheless, SFPD and SFMTA maintain that these cars can’t be cited for moving violations because “no one is driving them.”

But figuring out who which person is responsible for a moving violation is “complicated and annoying to deal with,” so the fiction persists.

(Zawinski notes that even when these people are held responsible, they’re a “moral crumple zone” for the company that decided to enroll whole cities in nonconsensual murderbot experiments.)

Automation hype has always involved hidden humans. The most famous of these was the “mechanical Turk” hoax: a supposed chess-playing robot that was just a puppet operated by a concealed human operator wedged awkwardly into its carapace.

This pattern repeats itself through the ages. Thomas Jefferson “replaced his slaves” with dumbwaiters — but of course, dumbwaiters don’t replace slaves, they hide slaves:

https://www.stuartmcmillen.com/blog/behind-the-dumbwaiter/

The modern Mechanical Turk — a division of Amazon that employs low-waged “clickworkers,” many of them overseas — modernizes the dumbwaiter by hiding low-waged workforces behind a veneer of automation. The MTurk is an abstract “cloud” of human intelligence (the tasks MTurks perform are called “HITs,” which stands for “Human Intelligence Tasks”).

This is such a truism that techies in India joke that “AI” stands for “absent Indians.” Or, to use Jathan Sadowski’s wonderful term: “Potemkin AI”:

https://reallifemag.com/potemkin-ai/

This Potemkin AI is everywhere you look. When Tesla unveiled its humanoid robot Optimus, they made a big flashy show of it, promising a $20,000 automaton was just on the horizon. They failed to mention that Optimus was just a person in a robot suit:

https://www.siliconrepublic.com/machines/elon-musk-tesla-robot-optimus-ai

Likewise with the famous demo of a “full self-driving” Tesla, which turned out to be a canned fake:

https://www.reuters.com/technology/tesla-video-promoting-self-driving-was-staged-engineer-testifies-2023-01-17/

The most shocking and terrifying and enraging AI demos keep turning out to be “Just A Guy” (in Molly White’s excellent parlance):

https://twitter.com/molly0xFFF/status/1751670561606971895

And yet, we keep falling for it. It’s no wonder, really: criti-hype rewards so many different people in so many different ways that it truly offers something for everyone.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/01/29/pay-no-attention/#to-the-little-man-behind-the-curtain

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