Excuse Me, Is There AI in That?

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As soon as Apple announced its plans to inject generative AI into the iPhone, it was as good as official: The technology is now all but unavoidable. Large language models will soon lurk on most of the world’s smartphones, generating images and text in messaging and email apps. AI has already colonized web search, appearing in Google and Bing. OpenAI, the $80 billion start-up that has partnered with Apple and Microsoft, feels ubiquitous; the auto-generated products of its ChatGPTs and DALL-Es are everywhere. And for a growing number of consumers, that’s a problem.

Rarely has a technology risen—or been forced—into prominence amid such controversy and consumer anxiety. Certainly, some Americans are excited about AI, though a majority said in a recent survey, for instance, that they are concerned AI will increase unemployment; in another, three out of four said they believe it will be abused to interfere with the upcoming presidential election. And many AI products have failed to impress. The launch of Google’s “AI Overview” was a disaster; the search giant’s new bot cheerfully told users to add glue to pizza and that potentially poisonous mushrooms were safe to eat. Meanwhile, OpenAI has been mired in scandal, incensing former employees with a controversial nondisclosure agreement and allegedly ripping off one of the world’s most famous actors for a voice-assistant product. Thus far, much of the resistance to the spread of AI has come from watchdog groups, concerned citizens, and creators worried about their livelihood. Now a consumer backlash to the technology has begun to unfold as well—so much so that a market has sprung up to capitalize on it.

Take an April press release from Dove that proclaims, “One of the biggest threats to the representation of real beauty is Artificial Intelligence.” The personal-care company was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its “Campaign for Real Beauty,” a marketing effort that has aspired to showcase women from all walks of life, with no digital retouching. Dove marked the occasion by committing to “never use AI to represent real women.” (The chief aim of such a statement was, of course, to generate publicity for Dove, and in that, it succeeded—the laudatory headlines came rolling in.) Around the same time, you may have seen a commercial with a clear anti-AI slant from Discover: “You robots are sounding more human every day!” Jennifer Coolidge tells a call-center employee. “At Discover, everyone can talk to a human representative,” the worker replies.

These may be a Unilever subsidiary and a major credit-card company, respectively—not, in other words, organizations that we would normally look to for moral clarity—yet their ads are responding to real anxiety. And it’s not just corporate ad campaigns: New companies are being built to cater to users disillusioned by generative AI. Cara, a social-media and portfolio app for artists, has explicitly prohibited users from showcasing AI-generated artwork in its terms of use since its launch, in 2023. It has seen an influx of users in recent weeks, after news broke that Meta, which owns Instagram, is automatically ingesting all public posts into its AI training data. The app briefly rose to the fifth spot on the iOS social-network chart, and went from 40,000 users to nearly 1 million in a matter of days.

“I want a platform that opts images out of scraping by default, that won’t host AI media until data sets are ethically sourced and laws have passed to protect artists’ work,” Cara’s founder, Jingna Zhang, told me. Users seem to want that too. In a June 2 post on Cara, the artist Karla Ortiz said, “I cant explain how good it feels to be on here and know that what I am seeing here is human made.” The post has been liked 10,900 times so far. (Ortiz is a named plaintiff in a recent class-action lawsuit alleging that AI companies infringed on artists’ copyrights.)

Perhaps her elation at finding harbor on an AI-battered internet shouldn’t be surprising: As AI-generated content has proliferated online, so have concerns about the technology’s quality, ethics, and safety. Generative-AI services are still prone to “hallucinate” and deliver false and unreliable information, they can be used to produce scams and misinformation, and they were trained on the work of nonconsenting creatives, the majority of whom have received no compensation. As such, a steady tick of companies, brands, and creative workers have taken to explicitly advertising their products and services as human-made. It’s a bit like the organic-food labels that rose to prominence years ago, but for digital labor. Certified 100 percent AI-free.

Writers and media outlets are slapping disclaimers and “No AI” declarations on blogs and websites; an organization called Not by AI offers a downloadable badge that anyone can use (it claims that 264,000 webpages currently do so). A classical radio station in Omaha issued a “No AI” pledge, and the Perth Comic Arts Festival put out a statement banning AI-generated media from its event. Hashtags such as “#noai,” “#notai,” and “#noaiart” are deployed by users on Instagram—a modern take on the #nofilter trend that suggested that an image was presented without digital enhancements. The tech-journalism outlet 404 Media describes itself as AI free: “Media for humans, by humans.” In a digital ecosystem overwhelmingly controlled by monopolistic tech companies such as Google and Meta, each of which is bent on deploying new AI products whether users want them or not, even these small declarations are ways to register a protest, signal discontent, and wave the flag for other AI skeptics to rally around.

All of that discontent, visible also in the Hollywood writers’ strike that took aim at restricting the use of AI, class-action lawsuits such as the one Ortiz is participating in, and increased workplace organizing around AI in the gaming and journalism industries, has highlighted a widespread and earnest desire to keep work in human hands, and for high-quality, human-made art, writing, and services. (The Atlantic has a corporate partnership with OpenAI. The editorial division of The Atlantic operates independently from the business division.)

Yet it was, of all things, a tech start-up that hosted the first prominent “AI-free” marketing materials I came across, months ago, when I began following this new trend. Its backstory struck me as especially relevant and prescient.

Inqwire’s site looks a lot like many of its peers’, with a minimalist design and playful branding—in this case, for products such as a smart journal that “helps you identify and explore meaningful topics from your writing.” But instead of advertising how it optimizes the latest AI technology, as most tech companies in 2024 are wont to do, it boasts of rejecting it entirely with a module in the middle of the homepage, complete with bolding for emphasis: “100% LLM-Free: Inqwire technology does not use Large Language Models (LLMs) and never presents chatbot or conversational interfaces that act human or imitate human experts.”

“I’ve been heartened to see people saying ‘I would pay for a service if it was LLM free,” Jill Nephew, a founder of Inqwire, told me. “I definitely would.” Nephew says that she was driven to make the LLM-free label for a number of reasons: She doesn’t want to promote tools that could take people’s jobs, she’s not convinced LLMs are reliable as a business solution, and her early days working in a start-up in the first dot-com boom taught her that, ultimately, clients want sensible tools whose output they understand.

Nephew told me that right after college, in the ’90s, she took a job working on “black-box algorithms” for a company called Red Pepper Software, a hot start-up at the time. (The company was acquired by PeopleSoft, which was then acquired by Oracle.) It sold enterprise software intended to help companies optimize their manufacturing and distribution schedules. Clients often had no idea why the software was producing the results it did—a problem that persists in AI systems today. Nephew spent years helping to iron out the system, learning an important lesson, and one that echoes the problem that today’s AI industry is facing: “People are initially wowed by all the promises of a super megabrain, but what they actually value is things that they can explain, defend, and make sense of. If they can’t make sense of it, it’s a nonstarter.”

In other words, Nephew thinks the tech is overhyped and under-functional, that separating her company from the pack before the trend implodes is the smart move. Likewise, AnswerConnect, a Portland, Oregon–based call-center company, also trumpets a “People, Not Bots” tagline. It commissioned a report from the market-research agency OnePoll, which found that 78 percent of respondents “prefer to speak with a real person when they contact a company.” If all that is true, then it makes sense to eschew AI in favor of human workers.

Behind all these AI-free labels lurks a question, one that rings out even louder as the limitations of generative AI become painfully clear, as the companies responsible for it become more ethically compromised: What is the AI-generated variety for? People generally prefer humans in customer service over AI and automated systems. AI art is widely maligned online; teens have taken to disparaging it as “Boomer art.” AI doesn’t offer better products, necessarily: It just offers more, and for less money. Are we willing to trade away humanity for that?

In the 2000s, the organic and GMO-free labels were a reaction to concerns about sustainability, pesticides, and factory farming; organic food labels were supposed to designate quality vis–à–vis the badly made stuff. But there’s a lesson here—there is of course a limit to the branding. The organic label is costly to obtain and hard to verify—rendering it meaningless in many cases—and gave rise to enterprises such as Whole Foods that have traded in the branding at little discernible nutritional benefit.

The richest companies on Earth are pushing generative-AI output as cheaper, easier-to-produce alternatives to human art and services—and a few ad campaigns from the Doves and Discovers aren’t going to stop them. Put up the badges, ring the AI-free bells, and absolutely build alternative platforms for those seeking refuge from predatorily trained LLMs — but if we want to preserve a human economy for creative goods and services, we’re going to have to fight for it too.

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