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How Will AI Impact Niche Outdoor Websites?

How will AI Impact SectionHiker.com

A lot of my friends are asking me how I think AI will impact our lives and niche outdoor websites like SectionHiker.com. To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to be as big an impact as the technologists, venture capitalists, or press promoting it want it to. Even if it is successful, the rich will just get richer and everyone else will have to keep plugging away doing what they’re doing today. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve seen a lot of software fads come and go and I’m pretty sure that will happen in this case too.

I may be jaded. I spent many years in graduate school and working as a software engineer on Artificial Intelligence Applications and they were all painfully stupid. While the computer chips and computing speeds today are a gazillion times faster than 30 years ago, I don’t see that changing. Artificial Intelligences don’t have bodies, they don’t have or understand emotions, they don’t understand time, or have any common sense. Without them, you just have a jack-in-the-box, not an intelligent being or even one that sounds like one.

It’s true, you can teach an AI to take pizza orders or control the french fry machine at Mcdonald’s. But don’t worry, those jobs are not going away. People are willing to do them for a lot less than what leasing an AI will cost. AI is not going to eliminate all of the trades and manual labor jobs that exist today.  It’s not going to replace doctors, nurses, ski coaches, bricklayers, plumbers, or anyone who relies on their body or sight, smell, taste, or physical sensation to perform their jobs.

Take SectionHiker.com as a case in point.

  • An AI can’t do a gear or clothing review because they don’t have bodies and don’t feel physical sensations.
  • They can’t teach hiking and backpacking skills because they can’t identify with the frustration a beginner feels or the incremental attainment of a new skill.
  • They can’t write a trip report or share the wonder and awe that the outdoors provides.
  • They can’t distinguish fact from fantasy because they don’t have any common sense.

All they can do is summarize and regurgitate the text and insights that someone else has written, but that technology has been around for the past 40 years and well before it was rebranded as AI.

But more importantly, would you trust anything an AI says, knowing that it’s never experienced any of it? No, and therein lies the reason why AI’s impact will be so limited. People won’t trust AIs and they won’t be able to form any kind of meaningful connection or relationship with an AI knowing that the feeling cannot be reciprocated. People want connection, not just facts, which is why a lot of famous people have followings even though they are liars or complete idiots.

Sadly AI’s will probably produce all the same rubbish that floods the internet and social media today making the information published there even more suspect. The only difference is that it will be a lot more expensive than hiring a human to do it.

Those are my thoughts. What do you think?

19 comments

  1. The flood of rubbish is, in my opinion when I’m feeling optimistic, taking us back to the early 90s before Google. Search results are now mostly useless unless you specify a site. The window when you could do a naive search and learn something useful is past.

    • The amount of rubbish is unprecedented. We are drowning in content. My goal is to keep publishing quality articles and responding to questions and comments so that people have a place to come to when they want trustworthy information and answers.

  2. Well said Philip! Love your personal editorials. They arwsys cut to the chase .

  3. At this point in content creation on the web AI mostly just regurgitates text that’s already out there, and what’s out there is, as you say, unprecedented rubbish getting worse daily. Given that trend, it’s a mystery to me how AI can do anything other than spew more senseless rubbish that then is used to train the next generation of AI. As the training inputs get worse, how can AI get better at giving us useful text? I just don’t see it, so I agree with you that there’s going to be a place – hopefully an honored place – for content creators that know what the heck they’re talking about.

  4. I agree that the breathless enthusiasm around AI will prove ill founded. I can see how it might be used in material science to find things like a viable alternative to down insulation for example.

  5. It sounds like I got my undergrad at about the time you were doing your grad work. In my last semester I did part-time work for a fairly recent Assistant Professor. Her research specialty was A.I. — very emphatically A.I. as defined by Alan Turing, not as the term is commonly used now. She said that her understanding of the history of A.I. at that point was that it had been within 5 years of a break through for the last 20 or 30 years. She was thinking about whether she needed to find another research focus. She thought that some of the side results of A.I. research, such as “machine learning” or “neural networks” might soon be ready for commercial development. But the “real” results, such as intelligence and imagination, were too far in the future to support a scholarly career. Researchers were not making any progress in understanding how those activities, which are central to being human, happen in the brain.

    And I don’t see any changes in that over the last 30 years. So yes, Philip, I agree that what is being called AI doesn’t pose a significant risk to the usefulness of humans in general or of you as a very helpful source of information for people like me.

  6. I’d venture that the concern for niche sites like sectionhiker.com involves traffic level more than anything else. Recognizing that most traffic is prompted by folks with niche interest seeking information, the issue becomes how that information is found. Recognizing that the primary benefit of AI web-wise will be the ability to “know everything published” and “summarize” information found by weighting and keywords, it may well be that AI enabled searches will “answer questions” without the enquirer’s need to scour the web and weigh opinions. As a result, traffic to content providers may dwindle. When traffic is a metric for value, this can mean content providers may be cut off or marginalized (e.g., YouTube Influencers), and other private providers sites may drop in search hierarchy results, causing them to become discouraged and even drop away.
    AI cannot review gear personally, only collect, weigh, and summarize. New products might be “reviewed” based on manufacturer’s claims by a poorly directed AI development rather than actual use review by critical users. Such is the danger of reliance on AI engines to “learn”. As the age old saying, “Garbage in, Garbage out”, but with AI, to unwary users, the AI response SEEMS to be seductively “independent and well versed”.

  7. My son who graduated from RIT with a degree in computer animation and does work on advertising for Toyota, Columbia, McDonalds, etc. thinks that in another decade AI might replace him. I don’t think so because he is very imaginative and artistic which has made him very successful and AI will never have those qualities.

  8. I see AI as an advanced search engine. It regurgitates info it finds on the internet. My problem with AI is how do we distinguish between AI a human if there is no verification. AI could write an article as authored by Philip Werner and how would we know if it was real or fake.

  9. I think a lot of you are underestimating the impact and potential usefulness of AI. I do agree that there is a lot of “rubbish” on the internet and right now AI is influenced by this, but more and more companies are developing better AI and investors are pouring tons of money into this endeavor. It will advance to a point that might become scary good (or bad depending on how it’s used) and maybe out of our control. Board games like chess which requires deep thought and calculation or Go which you need experience and feel are mastered by AI to a degree that the very best human players stand no chance. It’s coming no doubt and will influence all of us whether or not we want it to.

  10. Amara’s Law comes to mind.

    I have been considering testing AI for trip planning. Eg meal planning for a multi day hike – calories, carbohydrate, protein, micronutrients… As Tom Coffey notes this information is probably available now but I expect to be able to get results specific to my weight, the terrain and kilometres per day all within a minute or two.

  11. The media has everybody in panic mode over AI just like it did for Y2K. And now Y2K is just a distant memory, if that.

  12. I have seen the power of AI used by highly sophisticated analysts
    It is scary powerful
    .
    You need to set your parameters for the questions
    .
    I could ask for a backpacking kit, at weight and cost to be used by me according to my body size and type in certain conditions
    The answer would come back in minutes
    I could plan a meal requirements for how many days, at what cost according to my very specific dietary needs
    Again the answer in minutes
    .
    AI has almost instantaneous access to huge data, way beyond our usability to collate
    And equally fast to report back to us
    An amazing tool

    • This being ‘Merica, you do realize that developers will build an advertising back door into AI responses to favor certain products over another. It’ll be just like Google Search today. AI’s won’t have any integrity – there’s that trust issue again.

  13. I hope you find a way to be compensated when that AI plagiarizes your site’s content.

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