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Artificial Intelligence is having a moment

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Friends are morphing into fairy princesses and astronauts. TV scripts, poetry and cover letters are being written by a bot that sounds a whole lot like a real human. Artificial intelligence is having a moment, with people using new tools to show off just how advanced AI has gotten. As NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, these tools are showcasing the power and the peril of the current state of AI.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: There are two crazes taking the internet by storm right now. The first is an image generator called Lensa. You upload a bunch of selfies to the app, and it spits out a batch of hyper-realistic avatars - you in space, you as an anime character. All of them have one thing in common - as one person put it on Twitter - you, but 20% hotter. Oren Etzioni runs the Seattle-based Allen Institute for AI.

OREN ETZIONI: They've really taken this technology, and they tied it with people's ego and their vanity. And that combination has proven to be almost irresistible.

ALLYN: The second tool causing lots of buzz is called ChatGPT. It's a bot that can hold a conversation or answer questions a lot like a human. You ask it something, and it starts responding in a way that can freak you out pretty fast. I asked it to place a Chipotle order in the speaking style of Donald Trump, and it said, quote, "all right, folks, let me tell you. This Chipotle order is going to be huge, the best Chipotle order you've ever seen, believe me. We're talking about a big, beautiful burrito bowl." It went on from there. With such a gift for language, it did make me wonder, will ChatGPT one day replace me?

ETZIONI: It's pretty funny, right? Are you going to be out of a job? Of course, I'm probably going to be out of a job because you don't really need me. You could just take those questions, feed them into ChatGPT, and it'll give you pretty plausible answers.

ALLYN: It may seem like AI has all of a sudden gotten really, really good. But Etzioni likes to say AI's overnight success has been 50 years in the making. Some of the most advanced AI tools are being developed secretly by tech giants like Google and Facebook. The companies aren't ready to publicly release them, in part because the ways they can be abused is still being studied. But startups like the companies behind Lensa and ChatGPT have another approach - release the tools publicly, see how they're used, then try to put up guardrails to prevent abuse.

Obviously, sending tools this powerful into the wild will produce all sorts of results. Jen King studies privacy and AI at Stanford. She's noticed one thing ChatGPT does that's concerning.

JEN KING: You can give it a prompt to explain something in terms that make it sound extremely legitimate, but the underlying facts are actually incorrect.

ALLYN: For instance, I asked ChatGPT to generate a job cover letter for me, and it made a passable one. But it also said I worked for a newspaper in a city I used to live in but never actually worked for. Some AI researchers have a name for this - hallucinating. AI researcher Etzioni says though ChatGPT can answer questions in a way that seems persuasive, nothing it says should be taken as fact.

ETZIONI: A colleague of mine referred to ChatGPT as a mouth without a brain.

ALLYN: With Lensa, one problem many users are reporting is that the avatars produced tend to overly sexualize women. Sometimes the app will even create a completely naked cartoon version of you, even if all you gave the app were photos of your face. King with Stanford says this is because Lensa, like most AI tools, is trained using vast amounts of data from the internet. And it's the internet, so there's lots of pornography.

KING: Some of these companies are really training their models on what I would call the internet's toxic waste. And so to me, it's no surprise that we see these effects.

ALLYN: The company behind Lensa has responded to people who have complained about their avatars being sexualized. It says it has tweaked its AI algorithm so that nudity is avoided. And if your avatar does have nudity, the company says it should now be blurred. Not everyone is upset with their Lensa avatars. There already are reports of people bringing their Lensa portraits to plastic surgeons for inspiration.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.