A psychiatry resident’s take on the speedy rise of ChatGPT and how to manage the anxiety it’s triggering.
With the rise of ChatGPT and other AI (artificial intelligence) chatbots, many people have felt a rising anxiety.
Sensational headlines herald the ability of AI tools to generate art (per a report from the New York Times), make music (per NPR), and pass parts of the medical licensure exam (according to the American Medical Association).
“The worst AI risks are the ones we can’t anticipate. And the more time I spend with AI systems like GPT-4 [the newest language model powering ChatGPT], the less I’m convinced that we know half of what’s coming,” wrote the technology columnist Kevin Roose in the New York Times in March.
Though the recentness of ChatGPT’s explosion makes it difficult to parse how the escalation is affecting our mental health, a February survey conducted by Harris Poll and MITRE (a nonprofit research organization) found that 78 percent of Americans are concerned “AI can be used for malicious intent.”
This suggests there is indeed some general level of worry about the future of this technology.
ChatGPT hit the one-million-user mark in a week, a milestone that took 10 months for Facebook and nearly 25 months for Twitter, according to a UBS report.
Given the unprecedented scale of the disruption created by these new AI apps, the apprehension and anxiety some may feel about an impending digital apocalypse is unsurprising.
The eerie “humanness” of the content these AI tools spit out — driven by engines called large language models — is likely a big part of the reason the technology has us on edge.
The language models these apps run on — such as GPT-4 and its predecessors — work by interpreting patterns of syntax (sentence structure) and word usage from large swaths of data, according to OpenAI (the company behind them). An app utilizing one of these language models can produce content using this data and teach itself to use the language better after each attempt.
What you get is not just an app able to master the basics of Italian, but a hazy clone of da Vinci himself producing prolific works of art, poetry, literature, or whatever you want. And you can get all of that with just a few prompts into the app.
The depth, breadth, and speed with which AI applications can simulate human-like expression can be terrifying (at least according to this digital native) — on a number of different levels. Some of the world’s leading tech pioneers also have concerns, which they voiced in a joint letter in March.
Researchers fear ChatGPT could spread disinformation like wildfire, according to a paper published in January.
Academics are raising red flags about the risk of plagiarism posed by AI tools, with some suggesting curricula and honor codes be revised to reflect their likely usage by students — which could lead to the implementation of more in-person and oral assessments, according to an article published in the Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice on February 22.
A paper posted in March by SocArXiv Papers found that 41 percent of early users of ChatGPT worried about the prospect of AI taking over their job.
As someone working in the mental health care field, my take is that the trepidation expressed by many around the emergence of this new form of AI centers on the uncertainty over how it will affect people’s futures.
And we know, based on neurobiological research, that uncertainty (particularly uncertainty about a potentially negative future outcome) can result in anxiety. Remember how much COVID-19 anxiety affected our collective mental health?
On a societal scale, the sense of foreboding hovering over what ChatGPT will do next is almost palpable; it's like a collective holding of breath until the next feat (and what it portends) is unveiled.
It may help to recall that previous technological advances led to similarly end-times forecasts and concerns. As personal computers began nudging their way into households in the 1980s, a phenomenon called “computerphobia” captured the sense of anxiety experienced by those who lived with and used these new machines.
Later on, when the world was entering the year 2000, Y2K anxiety was a significant challenge to people’s mental health (as research documented), with widespread fears that the technology of the era would implode when the clock struck midnight.
And with the rise of the internet in the early 2000s, other researchers remarked on a sensation of “information overload” that they linked to anxieties associated with constant digital communication.
Though the leaps posed by the rise of AI appear galactic, remember that humanity has been through this before.
Here are some other tips for coping with this anxiety right now.
Much of the fear around ChatGPT revolves around how new and seemingly strange it seems. Our lack of familiarity with what this technology actually is (and what it might be able to do) heightens any angst we may feel toward it.
But if we step back and realize the ways in which AI is already part of our lives, then perhaps these new chatbots employing similar algorithms may seem less intimidating.
If you’ve ever used Siri or Alexa to set a timer or leaned on Netflix recommendations for your next show, you’ve been using AI. The same goes for relying on Google Maps to get to work on time. Acknowledging the ways we build AI into our lives might make the current technological leap forward less scary.
The next logical step might be to identify comfortable ways to use this new AI to make life easier — presumably the point of its creation in the first place. Allowing yourself some control over how this technology could help you might unshroud its mystique, and enable you to recognize its ultimate function as a tool for human use. From tasks like drafting quick emails to meal planning in seconds, chatbots could save you minutes if not hours.
If at any point you’re feeling overwhelmed, either by using new AI tools or by their looming presence in the world, then take a brief or prolonged digital respite (or detox).
Go outside, meditate, exercise, spend time with friends, play with the kids, go on a date, walk the dog. Engage in an activity without a screen. And remind yourself that the existence of this technology might enable you to make the most of these other, less-artificial moments of your life.
Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.
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