Regular readers will know that I rarely gush about technology. In a previous edition of WebCam, I went as far as explaining why I identify as a neo-Luddite. I can’t remember the last time playing with a new gadget or app gave me a sense of frisson.
Until now. Like seemingly every other tech reporter, I’ve been experimenting with an artificial intelligence bot that creates images from a text prompt, OpenAI’s DALL-E 2, and it’s hard to express the glee that comes from playing with it.
Here’s how it works: you describe something in normal everyday language (like “Godzilla at Vivid festival in Sydney”) and DALL-E 2 will generate six versions of what it thinks you were describing.
The underlying technology is a neural network — which basically means an artificial intelligence trained to make connections in a data set so that it can guess connections in the future — but it feels like magic (or dare I say human? Only kidding) because its output seems like it understands what you’re asking for.
When you ask for, say, “a koala at school”, the literal response we’ve come to expect from a computer would be something like a picture of a koala physically located in front of a school. What DALL-E 2 spat out for me is more sophisticated. It provided a series of photorealistic images of a koala sitting at a desk behind other students, opening an exercise book in a classroom, even in front of a chalkboard. There’s some kind of understanding of the relationships between objects, actions, and even aesthetics.
It excites me because this feels like another incredible tool for creating and remixing culture. It facilitates creativity. Can’t draw or photoshop? Why not just generate something from nothing. It won’t put artists out of business — we’ve seen time and time again through history that even very good imitations of humanity can never replace it — but it could help them by providing prompts or early drafts to work from.
Taking this technology to its logical next step is the idea of artificially generated video or even virtual realities. That seems possible now although who knows how long it could take.
Here’s the obligatory “concerns” bit. This technology has serious potential for misuse. The firm behind it is slowly rolling out controlled uses to limit potential harms, but the risks are obvious: this will be used to create pictures of people without their consent, images that are indistinguishable from life to deceive or are intended to hurt or insult. There’ll be other non-obvious harms too.
For now, however, I want to celebrate something that gives me a sense of wonder and reminds me why I fell in love with technology in the first place.
Unions were the quiet giants of the federal election online campaign
While there’s a lot of attention given to splashy groups like ADVANCE, I think that the unions’ beefy contribution to the online election was underappreciated. (Crikey)
Border Force searched more than 40,000 devices in five years
Beyond the headline, I was shocked to read that travellers aren’t told that they have the right to refuse to provide the passcode to their device. (IT News)
Concerns over China’s access to WeChat user data: report
It shouldn’t surprise us given how freely data moves, but it’s likely that the Chinese government can access WeChat users’ data — even though the company’s servers are outside China — through the backdoor created by Hong Kong national security legislation. (AFR)
A tribute to Cook Suck: Australia’s favourite and deeply unhinged food blog
Cook Suck was the food blog of the people. This tribute beautifully captures its joyful unpretentiousness. (SMH)
You, me and Alexa — smart home devices and sex in the digital age
You know that old saying “if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them”? Well, here’s a 2022 version. (SMH)
CryptoCam: if you know someone who owns crypto, give them a hug
Cryptocurrency prices are in freefall, crypto companies are laying off people or collapsing, and there’s faltering confidence in the industry. I took the time to check in with how some investors are feeling. (Crikey)