The RAG Snag: Convenience May Undermine Thinking for Millions

December 4, 2023

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

My understanding is that everyone who is informed about AI knows about RAG. The acronym means Retrieval Augmented Generation. One explanation of RAG appears in the nVidia blog in the essay “What Is Retrieval Augmented Generation aka RAG.” nVidia, in my opinion, loves whatever drives demand for its products.

The idea is that machine processes to minimize errors in output. The write up states:

Retrieval-augmented generation (RAG) is a technique for enhancing the accuracy and reliability of generative AI models with facts fetched from external sources.

Simplifying the idea, RAG methods gather information and perform reference checks. The checks can be performed by consulting other smart software, the Web, or knowledge bases like an engineering database. nVidia provides a “reference architecture,” which obviously relies on nVidia products.

The write up does an obligatory tour of a couple of search and retrieval systems. Why? Most of the trendy smart software are demonstrations of information access methods wrapped up in tools that think for the “searcher” or person requiring output to answer a question, explain a concept, or help the human to think clearly. (In dinosaur days, the software is performing functions once associated with a special librarian or an informed colleague who could ask questions and conduct a reference interview. I hope the dusty concepts did not make you sneeze.)

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“Yes, young man. The idea of using multiples sources can result in learning. We now call this RAG, not research.” The young man, stunned with the insight say, “WTF?” Thanks, MSFT Copilot. I love the dual tassels. The young expert is obviously twice as intelligent as the somewhat more experienced dinobaby with the weird fingers.

The article includes a diagram which I found difficult to read. I think the simple blocks represent the way in which smart software obviates the need for the user to know much about sources, verification, or provenance about the sources used to provide information. Furthermore, the diagram makes the entire process look just like getting the location of a pizza restaurant from an iPhone (no Google Maps for me).

The highlight of the write up are the links within the article. An interested reader can follow the links for additional information.

Several observations:

  1. The emergence of RAG as a replacement for such concepts as “search”, “special librarian,” and “provenance” makes clear that finding information is a problem not solved for systems, software, and people. New words make the “old” problem appear “new” again.
  2. The push for recursive methods to figure out what’s “right” or “correct” will regress to the mean; that is, despite the mathiness of the methods, systems will deliver “acceptable” or “average” outputs. A person who thinks that software will impart genius to a user are believing in a dream. These individuals will not be living the dream.
  3. widespread use of smart software and automation means that for most people, critical thinking will become the equivalent of an appendix. Instead of mother knows best, the system will provide the framing, the context, and the implication that the outputs are correct.

RAG opens new doors for those who operate widely adopted smart software systems will have significant control over what people think and, thus, do. If the iPhone shows a pizza joint, what about other pizza joints? Just ask. The system will not show pizza joints not verified in some way. If that “verification” requires the company advertising to be in the data set, well, that’s the set of pizza joints one will see. The others? Invisible, not on the radar, and doomed to failure seem their fate.

RAG is significant because it is new speak and it marks a disassociation of “knowing” from “accepting” output information as the best and final words on a topic. I want to point out that for a small percentage of humans, their superior cognitive abilities will ensure a different trajectory. The “new elite” will become the individuals who design, shape, control, and deploy these “smart” systems.

Most people will think they are informed because they can obtain information from a device. The mass of humanity will not know how information control influences their understanding and behavior. Am I correct? I don’t know. I do know one thing: This dinobaby prefers to do knowledge acquisition the old fashioned, slow, inefficient, and uncontrolled way.

Stephen E Arnold, December 4, 2023

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