Fake Books: Will AI Cause Harm or Do Good?

April 24, 2024

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

I read what I call a “howl” from a person who cares about “good” books. Now “good” is a tricky term to define. It is similar to “quality” or “love.” I am not going to try to define any of these terms. Instead I want to look at one example of smart software creating a problem for humans who create books. Then I want to focus attention on Amazon, the online bookstore. I think about two-thirds of American shoppers have some interaction with Amazon. That percentage is probably low if we narrow to top earners in the US. I want to wrap up with a reminder to those who think about smart software that the diffusion of technology chugs along and then — bang! — phase change. Spoiler: That’s what AI is doing now, and the pace is accelerating.


The Copilot images illustrates how smart software spreads. Cleaning up is a bit of a chore. The table cloth and the meeting may be ruined. But that’s progress of sorts, isn’t it?

The point of departure is an essay cum “real” news write up about fake books titled “Amazon Is Filled with Garbage Ebooks. Here’s How They Get Made.”

. These books are generated by smart software and Fiverr-type labor. Dump the content in a word processor, slap on a title, and publish the work on Amazon. I write my books by hand, and I try to label that which I write or pay people to write as “the work of a dumb dinobaby.” Other authors do not follow my practice. Let many flowers bloom.

The write up states:

It’s so difficult for most authors to make a living from their writing that we sometimes lose track of how much money there is to be made from books, if only we could save costs on the laborious, time-consuming process of writing them. The internet, though, has always been a safe harbor for those with plans to innovate that pesky writing part out of the actual book publishing.

This passage explains exactly why fake books are created. The fact of fake books makes clear that AI technology diffusing; that is, smart software is turning up in places and ways that the math people fiddling the numerical recipes or the engineers hooking up thousands of computing units envisioned. Why would they? How many mathy types are able to remember their mother’s birthday?

The path for the “fake book” is easy money. The objective is not excellence, sophisticated demonstration of knowledge, or the mindlessness of writing a book “because.” The angst in the cited essay comes from the side of the coin that wants books created the old-fashioned way. Yeah, I get it. But today it is clear that the hand crafted books are going to face some challenges in the marketplace. I anticipate that “quality” fake books will convert the “real” book to the equivalent of a cuneiform tablet. Don’t like this? I am a dinobaby, and I call the trajectory as my experience and research warrants.

Now what about buying fake books on Amazon? Anyone can get an ISBN, but for Amazon, no ISBN is (based on our tests) no big deal. Amazon has zero incentive to block fake books. If someone wants a hard copy of a fake book, let Amazon’s own instant print service produce the copy. Amazon is set up to generate revenue, not be a grumpy grandmother forcing grandchildren to pick up after themselves. Amazon could invest to squelch fraudulent or suspect behaviors. But here’s a representative Amazon word salad explanation cited in the “Garbage Ebooks” essay:

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Ashley Vanicek said, “We aim to provide the best possible shopping, reading, and publishing experience, and we are constantly evaluating developments that impact that experience, which includes the rapid evolution and expansion of generative AI tools.”

Yep, I suggest not holding one’s breath until Amazon spends money to address a pervasive issue within its service array.

Now the third topic: Slowly, slowly, then the frog dies. Smart software in one form or another has been around a half century or more. I can date smart software in the policeware / intelware sector to the late 1990s when commercial services were no longer subject to stealth operation or “don’t tell” business practices. For the ChatGPT-type services, NLP has been around longer, but it did not work largely due to computational costs and the hit-and-miss approaches of different research groups. Inference, DR-LINK, or one of the other notable early commercial attempts, anyone?

Okay, now the frog is dead, and everyone knows it. Better yet, navigate to any open source repository or respond to one of those posts on Pinboard or listings in Product Hunt, and you are good to go. Anthropic has released a cook book, just do-it-yourself ideas for building a start up with Anthropic tools. And if you write Microsoft Excel or Word macros for a living, you are already on the money road.

I am not sure Microsoft’s AI services work particularly well, but the stuff is everywhere. Microsoft is spending big to make sure it is not left out of an AI lunches in Dubai. I won’t describe the impact of the Manhattan chatbot. That’s a hoot. (We cover this slip up in the AItoAI video pod my son and I do once each month. You can find that information about NYC at this link.)

Net net: The tipping point has been reached. AI is tumbling and its impact will be continuous — at least for a while. And books? Sure, great books like those from Twitter luminaries will sell. To those without a self-promotion rail gun, cloudy days ahead. In fact, essays like “Garbage Ebooks” will be cranked out by smart software. Most people will be none the wiser. We are not facing a dead Internet; we are facing the death of high-value information. When data are synthetic, what’s original thinking got to do with making money?

Stephen E Arnold, April 24, 2024


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