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An Age of Hyperabundance

At the conversational AI conference

Dana Lok,  Typist.  2023, oil on canvas. 20 × 17”. Courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York.

I was in a room of men. Every man was over-groomed: checked shirt, cologne behind the ears, deluxe beard or clean-shaven jaw. Their conversations bounced around me in jolly rat-a-tats, but the argot evaded interpretation. All I made out were acronyms and discerning grunts, backslaps, a mannered nonchalance.

I was at the Chattanooga Convention Center for Project Voice, a major gathering for software developers, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs in conversational AI. The conference, now in its eighth year, was run by Bradley Metrock, an uncommonly tall man with rousing frat-boy energy who is, per his professional bio, a “leading thought leader” in voice tech. “I’m a conservative guy!” he said to me on a Zoom call some weeks prior. “I was like, ‘What kind of magazine is this? Seems pretty out there.’”

The magazine in question was this one. Bradley had read my essay “HUMAN_FALLBACK” in n+1’s Winter 2022 issue in which I described my year impersonating a chatbot for a real estate start-up. A lonely year, a depressing charade; it had made an impression on Bradley. He asked if I’d attend Project Voice as the “honorary contrarian speaker,” a title bestowed each year on a public figure, often a journalist, who has expressed objections to conversational AI. As part of my contrarian duties, I was to close out the conference with a thirty-minute speech to an audience of five hundred — a sort of valedictory of grievances, I gathered.

So that what? So that no one could accuse the AI pioneers of ignoring existential threats to culture? To facilitate a brief moment of self-flagellation before everyone hit the bars? I wasn’t sure, but I sensed my presence had less to do with balance and more to do with sport. Bradley kept using the word “exciting.” A few years ago, he said, the contrarian speaker stormed onstage, visibly irate. As she railed against the wickedness of the Echo Dot Kids, Amazon’s voice assistant for children, a row of Amazon executives walked out. Major sponsors! That, said Bradley, was very exciting.

I wondered if I should be offended by my contrarian designation, which positioned AI as the de facto orthodoxy and framed any argument I could make as the inevitable expression of my antagonistic pathology. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced I was being set up for failure. Recent discussion of conversational AI has tended to treat the technology as a monolithic force synonymous with ChatGPT, capable of both cultural upheaval and benign comedy. But conversational AI encloses a vast, teeming domain. The term refers to any technology you can talk to the way you would talk to a person, and also includes any software that uses large language models to modify, translate, interpret, or forge written or spoken words. The field is motley and prodigious, with countless companies speculating in their own little corners. There are companies that make telemarketing tools, navigation systems, speech-to-text software for medical offices, psychotherapy chatbots, and essay-writing aids; there are conversational banking apps, avatars that take food orders, and virtual assistants for every industry under the sun; there are companies cloning celebrity voices so that an American actor can, for example, film a commercial in Dutch. The field is so crowded and the hype is so loud that to offset a three-day circus with thirty minutes of counterpoint is to practically coerce the critic into abstractions. Still, I accepted the invitation for the same reason I took the job with the real estate start-up: it was a paid opportunity and seemed like something I could write about.

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