This article originally appeared in the Line.
By Peter Menzies, October 26, 2023
There was a saying that used to be thrown around in newsrooms about the nature of what we refer to these days as legacy media.
It went something like this: “By the time you see a daily newspaper start to cover a trend, you know it’s over.”
A cruel description, perhaps, of the embedded ways of thinking that turned your hometown daily into an extra in The Walking Dead. But fair. Trying to get a newspaper to adapt to change was like executing a 90-degree turn while at the helm of a supertanker. It took time. Lots and lots of time. And planning. So much planning…
Government, of late, has taken the newspaper industry’s cues when it comes to adapting to the internet. And I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. Both the Online Streaming Act and the Online News Act are thigh-slapping examples of outdated thinking.
Or they would be thigh-slappers if they weren’t about to cast thousands of people out of work, turn the internet into Rogers cable, and ensure even porn comes with closed captioning, described video, specifically employs Indigenous, black, brown and LGBTQ2+ communities, and streams a prescribed percentage of certified Canadian content.
When it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI), though, there is at least some sign there might yet be a soupçon of serious thinking in Ottawa. François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, has challenged his government’s #okboomer approach to modernity. He has taken the first steps towards regulating that which is overtaking newspapers, search engines and possibly everything else — AI.
Late last month, a voluntary code of conduct was announced. Legislation, hopefully sensible, will follow. One is aware that editors demand to know “why should readers care?” So, rather than put in the usual time and effort searching, I just asked the Google Lady, with whom I have a good relationship, “Hey Google, why should people care about Artificial Intelligence?” And, just like that, she replied in her soothing English accent (my preference) that there are a whole bunch of things to worry about. Most notably, while it is vigorously logical, AI is devoid of any sense of ethics or morality.
That hardly makes it unique in today’s world, but other items she listed include the lack of transparency (e.g. how do you know Menzies wrote this and not ChatGPT?), bias, and discrimination. AI’s has the ability to scrape your personal data and use it for God knows what. It is vulnerable to hackers, and it concentrates power in the hands of a very few companies. Then we get to job displacement.
That’s a lot to handle, so let’s just take a quick look at the last one. AI will destroy jobs. There are dozens of examples that I’m sure you can come up with on your own but, seeing as The Line readers take an interest in the news business, here’s why you shouldn’t let your kids waste their money and dreams on a journalism degree.
All the online news portal of the future needs to do to cover a vast swath of local news is a steady feed of news releases. Get local sports leagues and clubs to send in their box scores and statistical summaries, and AI will convert them to stories. Ditto with routine transcripts from city council meetings, he-said-she-said news releases from competing political parties, as well as those from the police, fire departments or city hall. Put them in the hands of AI, et voila even a small, minimally staffed organization becomes a veritable fount of local news, sports and entertainment.
The upside of this is that readers get lots of information aggregated in one stop and the organization’s reporters are free to focus on generating the original, unique content needed to build paying audiences. The downside is that the jobs that AI replaces are currently known as “starter” positions.
This is one reason why governments need to be getting engaged with this issue, and as soon as possible. But there are others. Here it gets creepy.
Young men, the majority of whom these days are without a human romantic companion, are increasingly finding happiness in the virtual arms of AI girlfriends, who are displacing their human counterparts.
“Apps have created virtual girlfriends that talk to you, love you, allow you to live out your erotic fantasies, and learn, through data, exactly what you like and what you don’t like, creating the ‘perfect’ relationship.”
AI will make ‘em however you want ‘em — it’s all a private world of Stepford Wives that never complain, get pregnant, angry, make you play second fiddle to the kids or say “We need to talk.” They never say “fine,” always tell their guy he’s smart, handsome, sexy and they never grow old, fat or wrinkly, or care when the guy does. According to the Oh Canada Project, 63 per cent of 18-to 34-year-old Canadian men experience serious loneliness — a rate 10 per cent higher than their female counterparts.
Some might say AI has found a solution with its girlfriend apps. To others, what has been fabricated is a monster that threatens the very core of what it means to be a human being.
That’s why you should care. And it’s why future AI legislation is going to struggle mightily to balance personal autonomy with the public good. We might start seeing it first with how you get your news, but soon, it might be about how we as human beings form basic personal attachments. Lest we see our societies become even more poorly informed, misanthropic, and atomised than they currently are thanks to the last great technological revolution.
Peter Menzies is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former vice-chair of the CRTC.