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Opinion

Media Outlets Use AI To Create Fake Writers Who Are Almost As Creepy And Soulless As Real Journalists

DailyWire.com

A year ago, Sports Illustrated uploaded a video to their various social media channels. It shows Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors point guard and NBA champion, making five full-court shots in a row, in just about thirty seconds. In case you’re not familiar with basketball, this is an athletic feat that’s about as close to statistically impossible as you can get. But Sports Illustrated played it straight. The outlet wrote on their Twitter account, “Just finished a shoot with Steph Curry — this dude just can’t miss.”

Watching it, there’s no obvious way to tell it’s fake. Even if you watch it a few times, it seems real. You see him shoot the basketball, the camera follows the ball, and it goes in the hoop. Looks basically legit. But of course none of it was legit. And Sports Illustrated knew that, because the creator of the clip — who they tagged in one of their posts — is known for manipulating videos like this. The whole thing was just a bid for some attention on social media.

No one really followed up on this whole episode. There was no ensuing conversation about ethics in sports journalism. When Sports Illustrated ultimately admitted that it was a sham, no one cared. On one level, that’s not particularly surprising, since Sports Illustrated is a shadow of what it once was. Other than the annual swimsuit edition, which presumably now features trans and plus sized models, there’s no longer anything to distinguish the magazine from any number of other low quality sports blogs you can find on the Internet. That’s been true for quite some time.

What’s interesting about this episode, though, is what happened afterwards. 

Sports Illustrated didn’t stop lying to its audience. They didn’t decide to renew their commitment to serious sports journalism, to the extent that “serious sports journalism” isn’t an oxymoron. Instead, Sports Illustrated chose to start faking a lot more than just videos.

A website called “Futurism” just published an investigative report into the scam that Sports Illustrated has been running. Apparently, the company has been using artificial intelligence to draft entire articles. But more than that, they have been using AI to create fake authors, as well, complete with fake biographies. The outlet never disclosed any of this to its readers.

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Here for example is their biography of one Drew Ortiz, who appears to be a white male with brown hair and blue eyes. This is straight from Sports Illustrated’s website: “Drew has spent much of his life outdoors, and is excited to guide you through his never-ending list of the best products to keep you from falling to the perils of nature. … Nowadays, there is rarely a weekend that goes by where Drew isn’t out camping, hiking, or just back on his parents’ farm.” 

Obviously, most of the biographies you’ll read online are stilted and fake. But even by that low standard, Drew Ortiz’s bio is a little suspect. What does it mean to “keep you from falling to the perils of nature,” exactly? That sounds a little morbid. And once you find out that AI was responsible for it, the “perils of nature” line starts to seem more than a little bit creepy. But you’re not supposed to dwell on Drew’s biography. Instead, you’re supposed to click on his articles, because that’s how Sports Illustrated makes money.

Once you do that — once you click the AI-generated clickbait — here’s what you’ll find. One of Ortiz’s articles, which was originally published last year, is entitled, “Play Like A Pro With The Best Full-Size Volleyballs.” The point of this article is to advertise a series of volleyballs, so that Sports Illustrated can get a kickback when people click on the links and buy a volleyball. This is pretty standard in digital media, as you may have noticed. The “Drew Ortiz” artificial intelligence, for its part, was tasked with writing a paragraph to introduce all these affiliate links.

Here’s what Drew came up with: 

Volleyball is one of the most popular sports in the world, and for good reason. It’s fast-paced, has a high skill ceiling, and is generally an exciting sport to both play and watch. Even people who don’t watch sports can easily understand the intensity and skill required to play volleyball whenever they watch clips. There’s a reason why it’s been such a mainstay in modern sports to this day. Volleyball can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.

Now, up until that last line, you can see why someone might be fooled into thinking that Drew Ortiz is a real person. He comes across as an earnest guy trying to explain why he loves volleyball, in as many words as possible. But towards the end, Drew enters the uncanny valley. “Volleyball can be a little tricky to get into,” Drew writes, “especially without an actual ball to practice with.”

Well, that’s an understatement, Drew. It’s a bit like saying water polo is hard to get into without water, or cooking is hard to do without food. It’s the kind of thing no human being would ever say. So needless to say, the AI known as Drew Ortiz wasn’t exactly producing the most compelling copy. We can assume that very few people bought volleyballs on Drew’s professional recommendation.

That could be why, sometime this summer, Sports Illustrated quietly replaced Ortiz with another AI. This time, the name for the AI changed from Drew Ortiz to “Sora Tanaka.” Who is Sora Tanaka? Let’s see. According to her biography on Sports Illustrated’s website:

Sora has always been a fitness guru, and loves to try different foods and drinks. She is fond of varying her workouts and believes everyone should participate in some form of physical or mental activity at least three times per week!

I’ll read that last part again: “She … believes everyone should participate in some sort of physical or mental activity at least three times per week!” Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. We can infer from this that AI doesn’t exactly have a high opinion of humans, if this is the bar it’s setting for us. Just use your body or your mind three times a week. Let’s start there, AI is saying to the human race. I’d like to say that the robots are underestimating us here, but I don’t think they are.

At this point, it’s important to mention that Sports Illustrated didn’t just have AI generate articles, and fake biographies for fake writers. AI also created fake headshots for these writers. They generated images out of thin air. Both Tanaka and Ortiz had AI-produced headshots. We know that because the headshots were available for sale, on an online marketplace that sells AI headsets. Eventually, after they were confronted by Futurism, Sports Illustrated took all of these articles and headshots down, scrubbing all of it from their website. 

In a statement, the company blamed a contractor for all of this. They denied that the articles were written by AI, although they didn’t deny that the headshots were AI-generated. They also claimed that editors carefully review all content that’s uploaded. 

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That’s a claim that several other websites have made in the past. CNET, for example, insisted that while it was using AI to draft articles, editors were carefully fact-checking every detail prior to publication. How did that work out? A few months ago, CNET published an article claiming that a $10,000 deposit in a savings account, earning a 3% APY, would return $10,300 in profit after the first year. That’s off by about $10,000. CNET later appended a correction to the article. Somehow that one slipped by the fact-checkers.

Bankrate, one of CNET’s sister sites, has had the same problem. They claim that their editors carefully review AI-generated articles, but these articles are full of mistakes. Including mathematical mistakes, which is the one thing you’d think AI would always get right. 

So what do we make of all this? 

It’s easy to mock outlets like CNET and Bankrate and Sports Illustrated, which no one reads anymore. But it’s not hard to see where this is all heading. We’re rapidly and willfully moving towards a dystopian world where AI does everything and most human effort and labor has become redundant. Everyone can see this coming, and knows it’s bad, but it seems like none of our leaders have the fortitude to do anything about it. AI replacing Sports Illustrated writers is the least of our concerns in this regard. What happens when AI starts replacing, oh I don’t know, truck drivers and ride-share drivers? These are jobs that a significant portion of the American middle class depend on in order to survive. What happens when Waymo and Cruise and Tesla manage to perfect their self-driving AIs?

We’re not there yet, of course. It’ll likely be several more years until AI is capable of doing any of that. And it’s still possible we’ll eventually elect leaders in time, who will do something to prevent the potential destruction of millions of jobs in this country.

In the meantime, it’s important to look closely at the jobs that AI *is* capable of replacing, and what that says about these jobs and our culture at large. 

It’s hard to deny that “journalism” — and sports journalism in particular — has become so vacuous and pointless that it can easily be replaced by robots and most readers don’t even notice. It’s generally not a good thing to replace human jobs with AI, but in the media, so many of the humans doing the jobs are already barely human as it is. So it feels like a bit of a lateral move.

This isn’t just happening at Sports Illustrated and CNET and Bankrate. It’s happening at all the various tiers of garbage journalism, including gaming journalism. The website Kotaku now features a few AI-written articles. Microsoft Start — which is the homepage that Microsoft presents to users of its Internet browser — recently featured an obituary with this headline: “Brandon Hunter Useless At 42.” This is a former NBA player who died suddenly, and that’s the headline the AI went with. He’s not dead — he’s, “useless.” Which is sort of true in a literal sense, I suppose. But that’s not how humans typically look at it. Microsoft, maybe the biggest tech company on the planet, promoted that story. And here’s the amazing thing: It didn’t cause any kind of stir. You probably hadn’t even heard about it.

That’s because we’re used to this. We take it for granted that whatever garbage we read was either written by a poorly programmed AI, or it was written by some liberal arts graduate with no life skills. Either way, we don’t take it seriously, it’s just noise. The bar is so low that it’s impossible to be outraged by poor quality journalism anymore.

Indeed, it’s hard to be outraged by the quality of pretty much anything produced for mass consumption at this point. Take popular music, for example. A few days ago, an AI “singer-songwriter” using the name Anna Indiana went viral on social media. Here’s how Anna introduced itself, followed by some of Anna’s singing:

Now, needless to say, kill it with fire. The song is bad and bland and creepily lifeless. It’s also quite ominous. AI’s idea of a fun pop ballad is a lamentation about the pointlessness and futility of existence, followed by a call for us to “tear it all down.” The robots are, once again, not trying to hide their disdain for the human species. But then again, the mainstream music industry also hates the human species, and also has been, for decades, churning out its own bad and bland and creepily lifeless content.

To be fair, I should note that on social media, a lot of people gave negative reviews to that particular performance. But there are plenty of examples of soulless AI singers that have gotten a lot of praise recently. Here’s AI Johnny Cash singing a Taylor Swift song, for example. This was everywhere on social media a few weeks ago:

AI Johnny Cash got rave reviews, for the most part. People didn’t care that they were hearing the voice of a dead country music legend singing some of the most vapid lyrics imaginable. They embraced it. Some of them even said they preferred it to Johnny Cash’s original work.

This why we can be certain that eventually nearly all of the content we consume on the internet, and nearly every movie and show we watch, and song we listen to, will all be generated by AI. The technology is getting more advanced, while at the same time the humans who produce most of this content are getting dumber and more vacuous. Humans and AI are essentially meeting in the middle, where the two become indistinguishable. Now, I don’t think that AI will ever be able to write a book like “The Lord of the Rings” or make a movie like “The Godfather” or compose an original song to match Beethoven, but that’s not the kind of art that we consume these days. We watch Marvel movies and read short blurbs on the Internet and listen to canned pop music, and AI will certainly be able to produce all of that. And since we, as a culture, don’t value beauty and originality and depth anymore, we will eventually accept the AI content and consume it just as vigorously. All we want is the content, after all. We don’t really care where it comes from, or what it is, or who produced it, or what produced it. This is what makes AI dangerous. Not that it will become sentient and enslave mankind or whatever. But that it will become indistinguishable from humans, because humans have become indistinguishable from it.

It all kind of reminds me of the last few page of George Orwell’s book, “Animal Farm,” which was obviously meant to be an allegory about communism not artificial intelligence. Still, I think about that very last line: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again. But already it was impossible to say which was which.”

All you need to do is replace the word “pig” with “AI,” and you’ve got a modern allegory. Which is incredible, if you think about it. Just a few decades ago, it would have been crazy for Sports Illustrated to publish computer-generated slop, and pass it off as journalism, it never would have worked. But this past year, it went on for months, and no one even noticed, until a website called “Futurism” just happened to catch on.

Men are becoming indistinguishable from pigs, to use Orwell’s phrase. And with each passing day — with each refinement to the algorithm — it becomes more and more difficult to say which is which.

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The Daily Wire   >  Read   >  Media Outlets Use AI To Create Fake Writers Who Are Almost As Creepy And Soulless As Real Journalists