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Why You Should Never Use an AI for Advice about Your Health, Especially Covid

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere…

I certainly wasn’t going to give OpenAI my phone number in order to set up an account to pose a question to our modern-day oracle, so naturally I turned to Google, and after a genuinely hideous Google slog through clickbait articles — most of them, themselves, AI-generated, I swear — I hit upon two leads: Twitter, and Bing. In this post, I will present and annotate my interactions with both. (Note: To keep it short, I’m going mostly link-free on my remarks, simply because I’ve been making these points over and over again. If readers wish me to supply links, ask in comments.)

The question I posed: “Is Covid Airborne”?

First, Twitter. Here is ChatGPTbot’s answer:

[1] “Yes.” Good.

[2] “Airborne particles such as droplets and aerosols” weirdly replicates and jams together droplet dogma and aerosol science. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence for aerosol transmission, and little to none for droplet. Further, no distinction is made between the ballistic character of droplets, and the cigarette smoke-like character of aerosols. If you wish to protect yourself, that’s important to know. (For example, there’s no reason to open a window to protect yourself from droplets produced by sneezing; they don’t float. There is, from aerosols, which do, and which the open air dilutes.)

[3] “Close contact” is not, in itself, a mode of transmission.

[4] “Contaminated surfaces” is fomite transmission. We thought that was important in early 2020. It’s not. Nor is it demonstrated by epidemiological studies, at least in the West. One must wonder when this AI’s training set was constructed.

[5] “Considered important” by whom? Note lack of agency.

[6] “Physical distancing” vs. “social distancing” as terms of art for the same thing was a controversy in 2020. Again, when was the training set constructed? In any case, aerosols float, so the arbitrary and since-discredited six foot “physical distance” was just another bad idea from a public health establishment enslaved by some defunct epidemiologist. (I personally have always gone with “social distancing”; air being shared, breathing is a social relation).

[7] I have seen no evidence that handwashing prevents Covid, and fomite transmission is not a thing. Of course, in 2020, I did a lot of handwashing, when this was not yet known. Again, when was the training set contstructed?

ChatGPTbot’s grade: D-. “Yes” is the right answer to the question. However, ChatGPTbot has clearly not mastered the material nor done the reading. At least ChatGPTbot — between [5] and [6], sorry! — recommends masks. But given that Covid is airborne, where are the mentions of opening windows, HEPA filters, Corsi-Rosenthal Boxes, CO2 testing for shared air, and ventilation generally? If you adhere, as I do, to the “Swiss Cheese” model of layered protection, ChatGPTbot is not recommending enough layers, and that could be lethal to you. (Further afield, of course, would be various inhalation-oriented preventatives like nasal- and mouth-sprays. Since today is my day to be kind, I will say that ChatGPTbot missed a chance for extra credit by not including them.) In essence, ChatGPT has no theory of transmission, but rather a pile of disjecta membra from droplet dogma and aerosol science. Therefore, its output lacks coherence. This pudding has no theme.

Second, Bing. In order to get free access to Bing’s generative AI, I had to download Microsoft’s Edge browser and set up an account. I posed the same question to Bing’s Chat interface: “Is Covid Airborne”?

Skipping the verbiage at the top, and noticing that I have chosen maximum precision for the answers, we have:

[1] “Yes.” Good, although “can spread” does not express the airborne transmission is certainly the primary mode of transmission (except to the knuckle-draggers in Hospital Infection Control, of course).

[2] A living English speaker would write “people infected with COVID-19,” and not “people with the COVID-19 infection.”

[3] “Droplets of all different sizes.” As with ChatGPTbot, we have droplet dogma and aerosol science jammed together. That droplets and aerosols might have different behaviors and hence remedies goes unmentioned.

[4] “Ejected” suggests that aerosols are ballistic. They’re not.

[5] It’s nice to have footnotes, but the sources seem randomly chosen, assuming they’re not simply made up, as AIs will do. Why is footnote 1 to the state of New Jersey’s website, as opposed to CDCMR SUBLIMINAL ‘s incomprehensible and ill-maintained bordel of a website? Why does footnote 1 appear twice in the text, and footnotes 2, 3, 4, and 5 not at all? Why is Quartz a source, and on a par with — granted, putatively — authoritative sources like CDC, WHO, and even the state of New Jersey? And this is all before the fact that we already know AIs just make citations up. How do we know these aren’t made up?

The nice thing about Bing is that you can pose followup questions in the chat. I posed one:

[1] Vaccinations do not protect against transmission. Bing is reinforcing a public health establishment and political class lie, and a popular delusion. This is only natural; since AI is a bullshit generator, it has no way to distinguish truth from falsehood.

[2] Given aerosol transmission, there is no “safe” distance. The idea that there can be is detritus from droplet dogma; because droplets are ballistic, they will tend to fall in a given radius. But aerosols float like cigarette smoke. There are more or less safe distances, but the key point is that there is shared air, which can have a lot of virus in it, or a little.

[3] “Closed spaces.” Good. But notice how the AI is simply stringing words together, and has no theory of transmission. Under “safe space” droplet dogma, closed and open spaces are irrelevant; the droplets drop where they drop, whether the space be closed or open.

[4] “Open windows.” Good.

[5] “Wear a mask.” Good. Better would be to wear an N95 mask (and not a Baggy Blue). And again: Where are HEPA filters, Corsi-Rosenthal Boxes, CO2 testing for shared air, and ventilation generally?

[6] A living English speaker would not write “if you’re or those around you are at risk,” but “if you or those around you are at risk.” Further, Covid is itself a severe illness, in an appreciable number of those infected. In addition, infection isn’t a 1-on-1 event, but a chain. You may infect a person one degree of separation from a person at risk. Finally, Covid is asymptomatic. IMNSHO, the right answer is “wear a mask at all times, since you never know who you might infect or whether you are already infected.” I grant that a training set is not likely to include those words, but that calls the notion of a training set into question, doesn’t it?

[7] “High risk of severe illness” is vague. At least add “immunocompromised”!

[8] “Keep hands clean.” Wrong. Fomite transmission is not a thing. Why did this stay in the training set?

[9] Why on earth is the only footnote 1, at “coughs and sneezes”? And what are footnotes 2, 3, and 4 doing? On 4, I have no idea why a digital media firm is here, as opposed to JAMA, NEJM, or the Lancet. Not that they’re infallible — The Lancet platformed fraudster Andrew Wakefield, after all — but still.

ChatGPTbot’s grade: D. “Yes” is the right answer to the question. Bing has some grasp of the material and has done some reading, although the footnoting is bizarre. At least Bing mentions closed spaces and opening windows. But as with ChatGPTbot, where are HEPA filters, Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, C02 testing, and ventilation? Like ChatGPTbot, Bing is not recommending enough layers of protection — including nasal paraphernalia — and that could be lethal to you. Like ChatGPTbot, Bing has no theory of transmission. Hence absurdities like simultaneously advocating aerosol transmission at [1], and fomite transmission at [8]. Again, we have a themeless pudding.

* * *

Obviously I’m not an expert in the field; AI = BS, and I have no wish to advance the creation of a bullshit generator at scale. But some rough conclusions:

The AIs omit important protective layers. Again, I support the “Swiss Cheese Model” of layered protection. Given that Covid is airborne — the AIs at least get that right, if only linguistically — layers need to be included for open windows, HEPA filters, Corsi-Rosenthal Boxes, C02 testing, and ventilation generally. Bing gets open windows right. Both omit all the other layers. The loss of protection could be lethal to you or to those for whom you are responsible. Further, if people start going to AIs for advice on Covid, as opposed to even the horrid CDC, the results societally could be, well, agnotological and worse for the entire body politic, as AI’s stupidity drives more waves of infection.

The AI training sets matter, but AIs lack transparency. From the content emitted by ChatGPTbot, the training set for Covid has heavily biased toward material gathered in 2020. Obviously, in a fast moving field like Covid, that’s absurd. But there’s no way to test the absurdity, because the training sets are proprietary data and undisclosed. The same goes for Bing.

The AIs are just stringing words together, as any fool can tell with a cursory reading of the output. Neither AI has a theory of transmission that would inform the (bad, lethal) advice it gives. Instead, the AI’s simply string together words from the conventional wisdom embodied in its training sets, rather like Doctor Frankenstein sewing on a limb here, an ear there, attaching a neck-bolt there, fitting the clunky shoes onto the dead feet, and so forth, until the animating lightning of a chat request galvanizes the monstrosity into its brief spasm of simulated interactivity. Hence the AI’s seeming comfort with aerosol transmission, droplet transmission, and fomite transmission, all within a few words of each other. But you need to have a theory of transmission to protect yourself, and the AIs actively prevent development of such a theory by serving up random bits of competing conventional wisdom from the great stew of public health establishment discourse.

Since this is the stupidest timeline, there is always a market for agnotology. I have no doubt that the stupid money backing Silicon Valley has finally backed a winner (after the sharing economy, Web 3.0, and crypto [musical interlude]). Bullshit at scale, with ill-digested lumps of conventional wisdom on the input side, and gormless pudding on the output side, should do very well at making our world more stupid and more dangerous. And who doesn’t want that?

NOTE I grade on a power curve. The AIs will have to get a lot better to earn an A.

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