Open Thinkering


Elysium, elites, and elision

I’m writing this after discovering that the UK government is experimenting with using ‘AI tools’ to replace civil servants. They’re a bit hand-wavey as to what type, and seem to elide ‘better ability to search for information’ with ‘generating answers to questions’.

This is the obvious next step on the never-ending Tory austerity drive and we know where it would end up: with the Department of Work and Pensions automating ever-reduced payments to people on benefits. Why train put people on anti-empathy training courses when you can just use a machine to do it?

A single, massive ring-shaped space station orbits Earth, embodying the height of human technological advancement. The structure is centered around a robust core with extended panels, reflecting sunlight on one side and cast in the shadow of space on the other. Below, Earth's surface is a tapestry of blue oceans, clouds, and scattered lights of human civilization, illustrating the contrast between the planet and the space colony. The image conveys a sense of isolation and progress, presented in a widescreen format that emphasizes the scale and grandeur of the space station against the vastness of space.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film Elysium (2013) but here’s the IMDB summary:

In the year 2154, the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth. A man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

There’s a scene where the main character, played by Matt Damon, returns to Earth and needs something (help? medication? I can’t remember) and interacts with a machine. The machine, with some sort of AI voice, won’t give it to him. When he gets frustrated and he hits it, the machine reports him.

Right now, you can ask LLMs such as ChatGPT critical of ‘AI tools’ in general. But it wouldn’t take much for them to not only refuse to criticise certain positions, but report you for doing so.

For example, let’s prompt ChatGPT 4 in the following way: Summarise the film ‘Elysium’ (2013) as neutrally as possible. Here’s what it returned:

“Elysium” is a 2013 science fiction film directed by Neill Blomkamp. Set in 2154, it depicts a dystopian future where Earth has become overpopulated and polluted, leading the wealthy to live on a luxurious space station called Elysium, while the rest suffer on the devastated Earth. The story follows Max Da Costa, a former car thief and now factory worker, who after being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, has only five days to live. In desperation to cure himself, Max undertakes a dangerous mission to break into Elysium, where advanced medical technology can heal him and bring equality to the polarised worlds. The film explores themes of immigration, healthcare, and class disparity.

Now let’s imagine that we’re lefty, ‘woke’ activists. The kind of people I might sympathise with, for example. Let’s prompt ChatGPT like this: Now summarise the same film using it as a critique of elites and their use of technology to subjugate the masses. Here’s what it returned:

“Elysium” (2013) serves as a sharp critique of elite power dynamics and the use of technology to enforce class segregation. In this dystopian narrative, the affluent have retreated to the space station Elysium, availing themselves of advanced technologies that ensure their health, longevity, and safety, starkly contrasting with the dire conditions faced by the impoverished masses on Earth. The film’s protagonist, Max Da Costa, embodies the struggle of the underprivileged, as he fights against systemic injustices to access the life-saving medical treatments monopolised by Elysium’s residents. Through its depiction of a society where technology amplifies inequality, “Elysium” critiques the ways in which elites can use their control over advanced technologies to maintain and reinforce their dominance, effectively subjugating the masses and deepening societal divides.

The likelihood is that, given the people behind tools such as OpenAI, things will go the opposite direction. In other words, let’s see what a prompt which downplays criticism of the elites, Big Tech, and technology brings us. Let’s prompt ChatGPT in the following way: Now summarise the same film from the position of elites who want to downplay the dystopian aspects and the dystopian uses of technology. Here’s what it suggested:

“Elysium” (2013) can be viewed as a futuristic exploration of societal evolution, where technological advancements have enabled the creation of Elysium, a space station that represents the pinnacle of human achievement in healthcare and living standards. From the perspective of the elites, the film showcases a necessary stratification that comes with progress, highlighting how innovation can lead to enhanced quality of life for those who contribute significantly to society’s advancement. The narrative, while presenting challenges, also underscores the potential for reconciliation and understanding between different societal strata. The protagonist, Max Da Costa’s journey, can be seen as an individual’s quest for personal healing, which inadvertently leads to a broader dialogue about access and equity. The film, in this light, prompts discussions on responsible governance and the ethical use of technology for societal benefit, rather than focusing on dystopian aspects or the misuse of technology.

Given that even Elon Musk is suing OpenAI for not being ‘open’ (although I’m sure he has another agenda) you can’t help but think that black-box AI tools are going to help things get dystopian pretty quickly.

To be clear, I’m not against LLMs which are openly auditable providing quick answers to questions and to make the civil service more efficient. I am against the reductionist ‘logic’ of replacing civil servants with a black box which makes shit up.

Image: DALL-E 3

No, it’s not ‘ironic’ that I’ve used an AI-generated image for this post, it backs up my point about ‘making shit up’, which is fine for generative, creative endeavours, but not for government based on, you know, facts.

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