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Ramesh Srinivasan on ChatGPT

By Joanie Harmon
Ramesh Srinivasan, UCLA Professor of Information Studies and Digital Media Arts

Scholar of digital culture to discuss AI's impact on UCLA’s academic mission of teaching, research, and service in virtual town hall on Mar. 3.

Updated 03/01/23

UCLA Professor of Information Studies Ramesh Srinivasan appeared recently on “The Young Turks,” in a discussion on ChatGPT. A scholar of digital culture, Srinivasan discussed the inherent dangers of the new generative-AI chatbot powered by OpenAI’s GPT-3 large language model (LLM).

Srinivasan will be a panelist for a virtual town hall on ChatGPT and its impacts on UCLA's mission of teaching, research, and service, on Friday, March 3 from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. The free event is sponsored by the UCLA Office of Advanced Research Computing (formerly the Office of Information Technology).

Darnell Hunt, executive vice chancellor and provost, will lead a panel including Professor Srinivasan, Safiya Noble, professor of gender studies and African American studies; interim director, UCLA DataX Initiative; and John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering, public policy, law and management; faculty co-director, UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy. The group will share perspectives on ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and what their use might mean for the future of higher education.

In the discussion on "The Young Turks," Srinivasan stated that ChatGPT is based on pattern matching algorithms, not reason or thought, “… simply spitting out are the mass cultural patterns. So, any ability for us to reason, to grow, to develop, to even be irrational at times – these systems are the opposite of that.” 

“It was supposed to be this beneficial technology for humanity, and as soon as the hype of this blew up and Microsoft started pouring money into it – while Microsoft is cutting thousands of jobs, mind you – it’s now, of course, a for-profit company.”

Srinivasan said that in his email conversations with Noam Chomsky, the public intellectual and activist stated that ChatGPT is “high-tech plagiarism.”

“It’s a game, it’s a toy,” said Srinivasan in the “Young Turks” interview. “And it’s fun. You can spit out these patterns that are kind of uncanny. But It is not anything to do with humans, it is not anything to do with intelligence. It’s certainly not a tool or a set of systems that we have power over or, are necessarily taking us or our youth in a great direction.”

Srinivasan also presented his talk on “Regenerative Digital Societies and Economies,” at the Digital-Life-Design (DLD) conference in Munich in January. 

Srinivasan, the author of “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World” and “Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow,” discussed how the wealthiest corporations in the world, including Facebook, airbnb, and Uber, own nearly nothing and employ only small numbers of employees. He stated that while this demonstrates “flexible, creative infrastructures” in bringing people and resources together, the question of what purpose that serves should be considered. He cited the growth of human dependence on technology during the COVID-19 pandemic as, “saw a transference of wealth and valuation and power and data valuation and speculated valuation.”

“This business model is not particularly sustainable based on the level of our people on this planet, and on a planetary and environmental level, because many of these businesses I’m alluding to, that are holders of data, that are monetizing every transaction in terms of data, are valued at a great amount, while actually not being profitable,” he said.

Professor Srinivasan commented on how despite great strides in technologies that would improve human life, in first-world nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom, life expectancy and upward mobility are at all-time lows.

“You see a declining standard of living, you see a declining life expectancy, concurrent with massive exponential advances in medical technology, environmental technology, social media technologies, AI technologies,” he noted at DLD23. “And the issue here is the uneven distribution by which these technologies are being designed and who they serve.”

Srinivasan called for a more equitable and humanistic approach to technology, that would reap benefits for society at large, rather than for an elite few.

“We live in a world … where eight people, more or less, have equivalent wealth to four billion. And in the United States where I live, three people have equivalent wealth to about 170,000,000 people. And many of those eight and many of those three, are connected to the vectors of technology.

“So we don’t want to get into technology… as traumatization …  [or]… transcendent, transhumanist, cyborg fantasy. We want to move out of those and actually locate technology into the questions that we want to ask as human beings. Which is how do we want our planet to be? How do we want to live our lives? What are the technologies that support the purposes of collective being as well as individual being?”

Professor Srinivasan is also a faculty member of UCLA’s Design Media Arts department and the founder and director of the Digital Cultures Lab at UCLA. “Beyond the Valley,” published by MIT Press, was named by Forbes as a Top Ten Tech Book in 2019. Other publications include “After the Internet” (with Adam Fish), published by Polity Press. Srinivasan served as a national surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign and as an Innovation policy committee member for President Biden.

Srinivasan is a regular speaker for TED Talks, and has made routine media appearances on MSNBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now!, CBS, AtlanticLive, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, BC. He has contributed op-eds and his research to international publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Wired,  The New York Times, Al Jazeera English, The Washington Post, FAZ (Germany), The Financial Times, CNN, Folda Sao Paolo (Brazil), BBC News, the Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic, Quartz, and The Economist.

Professor Srinivasan is a supporter of recent legislation, The Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act, which would hold social media companiesaccountable for enabling cyber-stalking, online harassment, and discrimination on social media platforms, and would force online service providers to address misuse of their platforms or face potential civil liability

To attend the virtual town hall on Mar. 3, register with this link. A recording will also be available after the event.