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Who’s afraid of big bad AI?

I no longer attend writers’ conferences and festivals that often, believing that younger writers would benefit more from each other’s companionship and encouragement, but I made an exception last week for the 66th Congress of the Philippine PEN, as a gesture of solidarity with that organization which has bravely fought to defend freedom of speech where it is threatened all over the world.

I was richly rewarded for my effort by listening to one of the most enlightening discussions of artificial intelligence (AI) that I’ve come across – not that there have been that many, considering that ChatGPT – widely regarded today as either God’s gift to humanity or the destroyer of civilizations – has been around for just a year.

Of course, AI has been around for much longer than that. In pop culture, which has a deep memory for these things, we can’t help but think of HAL, the insubordinate computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (which actually came out in 1968), said to be a clever play on “IBM,” just one letter to the right. Indeed the fear of technology – what some would call unbridled knowledge – has been around since Faust made his pact with Mephistopheles, reiterated in literature, film and pop culture all the way to Dr. Strangelove and Spiderman’s Doc Ock.

Not surprisingly, the panel on “The Filipino Writer and AI” – composed of Dominic Ligot, Clarissa Militante, Joselito D. Delos Reyes and Aimee Morales, and moderated by Jenny Alcasid – expressed many of the anxieties brought on by the entry of AI into the classroom, the workplace and everyday life: plagiarism and the loss of originality, the loss of jobs, indeterminate authorship and the lack of liability for AI-produced work. With Filipinos being the world’s top users of social media, AI’s centrality in our digital future can only be assured, like it or not, and for better or for worse.

So new has AI been to most people – and so rapidly pervasive – that most institutions from governments to universities have yet to formulate policies and regulations covering its use and abuse (the University of the Philippines has adopted an AI policy, mandating among others that all members of the academic community should be