UF professor Janet Coats says leaders can’t leave AI to tech companies
Janet Coats. Image via Florida TaxWatch.

Coats image001
She told Florida TaxWatch social media companies have shown they will prioritize their own interests over society.

It’s been roughly a year since ChatGPT was unleashed on the world. In that time, it opened conversations about artificial intelligence and already has shifted how analysts study data.

Janet Coats, a journalism professor at the University of Florida, has closely watched trends, explored ethics and received one love letter written by a computer.

“A year ago, people were experimenting with it, and my husband used ChatGPT to write me a love letter,” she recalled. “I said perhaps you shouldn’t need to use a machine to sum that up, or we have bigger problems.”

The moment of levity helped kick off a speech Coats gave to Florida TaxWatch on the potential ramifications of AI in all parts of the marketplace.

“Thinking about things like privacy, thinking about data protection, thinking about consent, those are huge issues that societies have to grapple with.”

In her own industry, she noted publications that have started using AI to illustrate abstract media articles about climate and other topics.

Beyond issues like plagiarism, she voiced concern about the shift in newsgathering as well. She recalled her days as an editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, when she would stop at the grocery store and receive both news tips and a sense of the public’s priorities. That will be lost if content production becomes the job of machines.

At the same time, Coats said she’s aware of the benefits. She revealed that a digital presentation accompanying her speech was generated using ChatGPT4 and reviewed in five minutes.

But she said individuals turning work over to AI need to understand its limitations. “You have to very carefully ask your question,” she said.

For example, asking a bot simply to write her resume, the AI embellished it with a doctorate Coats did not earn and published works in academic journals she did not write, but were connected to the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology at UF, where she serves as managing director.

A computer can’t consciously lie, she said, but it will fill in the gaps indiscriminate of ethics or accuracy.

There are benefits to the technology, she said.

“Some of the ways that AI can be positive, it can provide us access to skills that we will not have access to otherwise,” she said. “It can help me do spreadsheet analysis when I’m no expert in analysis. It can write code that is really good and really accurate — and it can do that very quickly.”

But she said AI inevitably will have economic consequences.

“There’s no question that jobs are going to go away,” she said.

She also suggested completely resisting the rise of AI use in business and media, noting the internet has ensured technology has global reach.

“These things can be decided that one country is going to make these decisions and then we’re all going to live on,” she said. If the U.S. did that, she suggested India, China and other competing nations would just move into and dominate that space.

“But we can’t leave these decisions to the technology companies,” she said. “If you haven’t figured this out, they will make decisions based on their own interests, which don’t always align with society.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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