Who Wrote This? author Naomi Baron: AI’s threat to language

Who Wrote This? author Naomi Baron: AI’s threat to language

Navigating the impact of AI on language, writing, and society

by Suswati Basu
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AI has undeniably become a hot topic in recent years, with discussions about its implications and applications gaining prominence. This week, the UK hosted its first-ever global AI Safety Summit, shedding light on the importance of AI safety. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order that he dubbed the most “significant” action by any government to ensure the safe deployment of AI.

President Biden expressed his perspective on AI’s significance, stating, “We’re going to see more technological change in the next 10, maybe next five years than we’ve seen in the last 50 years […] AI is all around us. Much of it is making our lives better … but in some cases AI is making life worse.”

Professor Naomi Baron on how AI threatens language.

To delve deeper into the subject of AI and its impact on language and writing, How To Be Books had a conversation with Professor Naomi Baron. She is a professor emerita of linguistics at American University and the author of “Who Wrote This? How AI and the Lure of Efficiency Threaten Human Writing,” among other notable works. The book was published by Stanford University Press.

A journey through time

Professor Baron’s journey into the world of AI began in the 1970s when computers were still in their infancy. She recalled, “I had gotten interested in artificial intelligence, really in a serious way in the 1970s when relatively little was happening that the general public knew about.”

Back then, personal computers as we know them today didn’t exist, and AI was in its early stages. Professor Baron’s curiosity about computers was piqued by a student, leading her to explore the field. She even authored a book called “Computer Languages: A Guide for the Perplexed,” in 1986 and published by Doubleday.

As AI started to gain prominence in the early 1980s, she began hearing about its potential applications, particularly in the realm of machine translation. She explains, “I was interested in possibilities for machine translation, which in the United States had been all the rage in the 1960s.”

“As a linguist, I was interested in possibilities for machine translation, which in the United States had been all the rage in the 1960s when we thought maybe here in the United States we could translate Russian into English really fast.”

Professor Naomi Baron, “Who Wrote This?” Author

The concept of artificial intelligence and its potential fascinated her, leading her to attend meetings and conferences where she met prominent figures in the field. She recounts, “I met all these luminaries who said, basically, keep your eyes and ears open. This is the new world ahead.”

Professor Baron points out the origins of AI, from Alan Turing’s early thoughts in 1941 to the development of the Turing test in 1950 and the formalisation of the term “artificial intelligence” at a conference in 1956.

The evolution of language and AI

Discussing the evolution of language and AI, Professor Baron focuses on the questions surrounding communication with non-human, sentient beings. She mentions the research in the 1970s and 1980s, where efforts were made to teach sign language to non-human primates like chimpanzees and bonobos.

“Do we care because what do we, as people, still feel motivated to do ourselves? And that’s, to me, what the biggest challenge of AI is, for the vast majority of us as linguistic thinking beings.”

Professor Naomi Baron, “Who Wrote This?” Author

Reflecting on the Turing test, she notes that it has been successfully passed thanks to the work of organisations like OpenAI, Google, DeepMind, and Meta. However, she raises the essential questions of discerning whether a piece of language is produced by a human or a machine and whether we should care about the distinction.

She also addresses the issue of machine translation and the contrast between AI-driven translation models and human translation methods, stressing that AI models like GPTs work by predicting the next word, a process not easily understood by humans.

The threats to language posed by AI

Professor Baron raises another pressing concern: the potential use of AI to generate analyses and discussions, thus depriving individuals of the intellectual growth that arises from reading, thinking, and forming their perspectives. She said she had personal experience of a publisher fearing reviewers using AI to produce work, stating: “The email says, when you review an article, a manuscript article, you must read it yourself and write your own review. I could not have made that up.”

“The creepy thing is, today’s AI tools can do not a great job, but a reasonable job. And if you look at the amount of effort that many reviewers put into reviewing manuscripts, good enough is what they’re doing anyway. And therefore, the editor in reading a good enough human-produced review won’t necessarily see a difference between that and an AI-produced review.”

Professor Naomi Baron, “Who Wrote This?” Author

She mentions the limitations of AI tools, such as Microsoft Word’s editing functions, which have incorporated AI technology, and the potential for AI to provide recommendations that may not align with human sensibilities or cultural context.

Read: Will publishers embrace AI chatbot reading companions?

Moreover, she identifies an emerging trend of AI-powered apps engaging in conversations about articles and books, which can impact traditional literature and philosophy classes. She states that as human beings, we strive to incorporate the perfect words, often referred to as the “mot juste” in French, into our sentences to infuse them with a distinctive character. As a result, she questions how discussions enriched by human input could remain relevant in a world where AI generates conversations based on existing text corpora, not to mention, changes the quality of us “as linguistic, cognitive beings.”

The impact on professions

Regarding the impact of AI on professions and everyday writing, Professor Baron expresses concerns about job displacement, especially in fields that heavily rely on writing, such as journalism, law, and grant proposal writing. She discussed the evolving role of AI in content creation and how it may affect employment in these sectors.

Professor Baron also mentions the challenges faced by journalists as AI tools become increasingly capable of generating news articles, which could potentially lead to job losses in the industry.

“My own hunch is that increasingly, AI is going to be used not just to augment, to give brainstorming ideas, or to correct a typo that I had, but is going to be used to replace a lot of the writing that people otherwise would have done. And that will be true in the professions. And that will be true for what I call everyday writers in our everyday lives.”

Professor Naomi Baron, “Who Wrote This?” Author

She indicates that while AI can be a powerful tool for augmenting human abilities, there is a risk of AI replacing human writers in various roles, prompting questions about the future of work in a world increasingly shaped by AI.

Furthermore, she highlights concerns about AI’s ability to mimic an author’s style and the potential infringement on an author’s voice and ideas. While AI can replicate certain aspects of writing, such as style and syntax, it may struggle with replicating an author’s unique approach to problem-solving or storytelling. And of course, this extends to artists in the field, as there are ongoing lawsuits related to AI-generated art, which challenge current copyright laws and raise questions about ownership and creativity.

The role of governments and ethical considerations

Regarding the role of governments in regulating AI, Professor Baron notes that governments, particularly in the European Union, have been more proactive in implementing legislation and safeguards for AI technologies. However, she reminds us that the innovation in AI largely originates from the United States, creating challenges for global regulation.

She highlights the importance of red teaming, where AI systems are tested for vulnerabilities and potential harm, as “everybody’s got to try to see what goes wrong so you can stop danger.” However, she acknowledged the difficulty of enforcing strict regulations in the fast-paced world of AI development.

“With the kinds of robots that are being built today, you can build facial expressions, and some of them are pretty good, and some of them are such that they can respond to the facial expression to the body posture of the person sitting across from them. So is that sentience? Well, no, that’s really sophisticated programming.”

Professor Naomi Baron, “Who Wrote This?” Author

Professor Baron then touched on the ethical considerations surrounding AI and sentience, underscoring that the definition of sentience in AI remains a complex and evolving topic. She suggests that AI can mimic emotions and responses, but the extent to which it can truly experience sentience remains a subject of debate.

Read: Jane Austen Meta AI: celebrities used in social interactions

Insights from Professor Naomi Baron into the intersection of AI, language, and writing shed light on the complex challenges and opportunities presented by AI technology. As AI continues to advance, it is crucial for society to engage in thoughtful discussions and ethical considerations to navigate the evolving landscape of AI-driven language and writing. The future of writing and communication will undoubtedly be shaped by the ongoing developments in artificial intelligence, and as science fiction author Ken Liu says “in every revolution, there are winners and losers.” The question is which category humans will end up belonging to.

Want to watch special bonus material from this interview with Professor Naomi Baron? Join the How To Be membership for only £4 per month!


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