Of chatbots and culture wars and imaginary incidents

One of Britain’s reputable papers (and with five words, I’ve already eliminated several) had an incident involving chatbots, and the tale’s worth retelling because it tells us a lot about the age we’re stumbling cluelessly into. Or maybe that’s the drain we’re being washed down. Or–well, it’s Supply Your Own Metaphor Week here at Notes, so I’ll leave you to come up with your own while I waddle onward.

One of the Guardian’s reporters got an email asking about an article that ChatGPT had cited but that wasn’t showing up on the paper’s website. The email’s writer wanted to know what had happened to it and the journalist went hunting. It was on a topic they reported on,so it sounded likely enough although they couldn’t remember the specific article or find it anywhere, so they asked other people in the office to turn the paper’s electronic pockets inside out and see if it fell out. Maybe it was in there with the shredded kleenex and the linty mint.

Irrelevant photo: camellia

It wasn’t. Because it had never been written. It turns out that AI not only invents facts–something I trust you’ve heard by now–but it also invents sources, and it can be convincing when it does. The nonexistent article was a good enough invention that the journalist hadn’t been able to say, “No, I never wrote that.” They easily could have. 

If you think it’s scary living in a world where a lot of people feel entitled to curate their own selections of alternative facts to back up their pre-existing worldviews–well, it’s about to get a whole lot weirder. And, I expect, scarier.


Imaginary drag queen teaches hallucinatory sex ed class

Did anyone mention alternative facts? The Daily Mail, GB News, and Fox News all reported that a drag queen appeared as  a guest speaker at an Isle of Man schooll and told “11-year-olds there are 73 genders–and made a child who said there are ‘only two’ leave the class.”

Seventy-three? Stop it, guys. I can’t count that high. If this goes on, I’ll have to give up my leadership position in the Gender Hyperawareness and Conservative Freakout Society.  

The story went on to say that “one teacher is also said to have had to teach pupils in Year 7 and 8 how to masturbate.”  

How old are kids in years seven and eight? Eleven to thirteen. Since it’s been a long time since I was anywhere close to that age, I asked Lord Google how old kids are when they begin to masturbate. The top-ranked answer was from the National Institutes of Health (that’s in the US) and said two years old. The next one said three. In fact, most of the articles I found were geared toward calming the parents of toddlers and preschoolers, saying, essentially, It’s okay. Kids that young discover that there’s something interesting where their legs come together and they’re not shy about exploring it

That wasn’t what I’d been looking for, but it did back up my hunch that kids don’t really need to be taught how to masturbate, although by the time they’re eleven to thirteen they may need reassurance that what they’re doing–or at least imagining–isn’t so different from what other people do and imagine.

But that’s not the point. The point is, that although the article I quoted is real and can still be found on the Daily Mail’s website, the facts were invented. The flap the reporting caused led to an investigation of the incident, which found that the incident never happened. 

But who waits for that? As soon as the story went public, people working at the school were deluged with threats and demands for staff to be fired, arrested, and executed–not necessarily in that order. 

What triggered the story? A man who does occasionally do drag spoke to kids “gender neutral language and the concept of gender in the LGBTQ+ environment.” He wasn’t in drag, though. So the question is, if a person has done drag, can they be allowed out in public in non-drag or do they have to be freeze-dried, vacuum packed, and kept in storage until the political winds shift? For the safety, you understand, of all 73 genders of our children.

As for the kid who said there were only two genders, the closest I’ve found to the incident was one kid who was taken out of the room by a teacher over some sort of behavior issue. 


The problem of defining drag in Britain

Cranking up the British about men in drag is going to be harder than cranking up Americans, because drag has a solid mainstream history here. Every Christmas panto season starts, and these are shows for kids, with the lead female role always (over)played by a man and the lead male role almost always played by a woman. It’s a thing. Among straight people. Is that drag or is it only drag if a man (over)dresses like a woman outside of a panto?

What, while we’re at it, does a woman dress like? I’m wearing jeans, a turtleneck, and an old sweater.

On our first visit to Britain, we watched a race where a lot of the runners were in costume. It’s a thing here. Give people a chance to run five miles dressed  as bananas or phone booths and they’ll, ahem, run with it. So in among all the bananas and phone booths and chickens were men dressed as ballerinas and nurses. Not the contemporary kind of nurses who wear practical uniforms, but the old-fashioned ones in white dresses and caps, who (I gather) inhabit the fantasies of some unspecified number of non-nurses. My gaydar insisted that the runners in nurses’ uniforms were straight. But even if my gaydar was off–it was tuned in a different country, after all–no one much cared. It was just another race through the streets of an English city. Enjoy the show, everyone.

So where do pantos and dress-up end and drag begin? 

I don’t know, dear. You tell me.


The problem of defining copyright and privacy

Now that artificial intelligence scrapes information out of every corner of the internet so that it can tell you, in perfectly grammatical prose, that the pope is made of custard, defining copyright and privacy is going to be as problematic as defining drag. Or more so.

Copyrighted material is probably being used to train AI systems. The word probably is part of that sentence because AI’s neural networks aren’t available for your average gawker–or even your non-average one–to examine, so no one knows what they’ve been reading, but a couple of AI systems have, embarrassingly, hacked up copyrighted photos from Getty Images, complete with the watermark Getty prints over the photos so that users will have to pay for a clean copy. 

Yes, there’s a lawsuit involved, but it’s about the smallest edge of the problem. Still to be discussed is the amount of personal data that’s being collected–and potentially disclosed–without people’s consent and the use of copyrighted material to train chatbots.


But speaking of privacy

Teslas have an in-car camera that Tesla assures the world “is designed from the ground up to protect your privacy.” Because customer privacy “is and will always be enormously important to us.” 

So important that from 2019 to 2022 Tesla employees were sending each other clips of, oh, you know, interesting stuff in people’s garages; road incidents, a man walking up to his car naked; you know, ordinary, everyday stuff that would embarrass no one. 

What are the camera’s limits? I’m not sure, but I’ve read that a Tesla parked in the right spot outside someone’s house could, potentially, film whatever’s going on inside through the window. 

One owner is suing Tesla. Some Chinese government compounds and residential neighborhoods have banned the cars. 

The moral of this story is that if someone goes out of their way to tell you how carefully they’re protecting your privacy, they’re calling your attention to a problem.