OPINION: From AI chatbots to Alaska resource megaprojects, we're in the era of hallucination – Anchorage Daily News

The Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. (Sean Maguire/ADN)
When I was much younger, hallucinations were an affliction of college students who figured drug-assisted education was worth a try. Not me (honestly). It wasn’t a statement of purity or anything; I just figured out it was more entertaining to stay sober and watch everyone else act stupid — and then tell them the stories the next day.
As I aged, I was hoping that self-inflicted hallucinations were a thing of the past among my generation, an unhealthy phase of life, much like eating four hot dogs with fries and a shake in one sitting. It was my favorite weekend meal with high school friends before we cruised around the neighborhood, thinking no one would notice our raw-onion breath. No surprise we never had dates.
But now, hallucinations are back in vogue. And, like drugs, they are human-made.
They come from artificial intelligence, which goes by the name AI, and which I confuse with A.1., though the steak sauce is a lot easier to digest.
When AI gets an answer wrong, really wrong, like totally made-up wrong, it’s called a hallucination. I wish I had that excuse in college calculus or organic chemistry.
“I don’t think that there’s any (AI) model today that doesn’t suffer from some hallucination,” Daniela Amodei, co-founder and president of Anthropic, maker of the chatbot Claude 2, told The Associated Press last month.
A Wall Street Journal columnist this spring wrote how he had asked an AI chatbot about “argumentative diphthongization,” a completely nonsensical phrase he made up. The chatbot spit out five paragraphs of “information,” explaining that the term was “first coined by the linguist Hans Jakobsen in 1922.”
You guessed it: Hans never existed. Maybe the chatterbox brains of the chatbot stole — or hallucinated — the name from a Danish gymnast who competed in the 1920 Olympics, at least that’s what the columnist thought.
As businesses, students, scientists, writers and many more professions are trying out AI to make their jobs easier or replace employees, the possibility that some chatbot could make up an answer from the bits and bytes equivalent of thin air is troubling. Not so much that a chatbot could spew out a falsehood that some student turns in as homework, but seriously troubling in that what if our elected officials turn to AI to make decisions.
“Hallucination” comes from the Latin word “alucinari,” which can mean “to dream” or “to be deceived.” I got that from a book, not AI. Starting in the mid-17th century, hallucination referred to seeing an object when nothing was there. A mirage.
Judging from those definitions, it seems like too many elected officials in Alaska already are infected with hallucinations.
They see the potential of billions of dollars from developing oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ignoring the reality that the industry stayed away from the 2021 lease sale and only the state of Alaska saw the mirage of oil wealth and paid millions of dollars for useless leases.
They imagine a North Slope natural gas pipeline in the future, selling the fuel to Japan and South Korea, missing the facts that liquefied natural gas consumption is in decline in both countries and that every competing gas project in the world is less expensive than Alaska.
Some, including the governor, hallucinate that the state can pay out billions of dollars in Permanent Fund dividends and not overdraw the state’s bank accounts. And at the same time shortchange public schools, because quality education is nothing but a mirage.
Maybe after researchers work out the bugs of AI hallucinations, they can do the same with Alaska’s self-deceived leaders.
Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal service in oil and gas, taxes and fiscal policy work. He lives in Anchorage and is the publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel weekly newspaper.
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Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal service in oil and gas, taxes and fiscal policy work. He currently is publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel weekly newspaper.
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