How to tell when that nicely phrased but possibly bullshit-laden piece of prose has been generated by artificial intelligence rather than ordinary human intelligence? One possible solution, proposed by seven companies active in the AI space, is digital watermarking.
iStock photo of water with watermarks
According to a fact sheet released on July 21, the Biden Administration has secured voluntary commitments from Amazon, Anthropic, Google, Inflection, Meta, Microsoft, and OpenAI “to help move toward safe, secure, and transparent development of AI technology” and to alert people to deepfakes.
“It's currently unclear how the watermark will work,” Ars Technica noted in an article about the development, “but it will likely be embedded in the content so that users can trace its origins to the AI tools used to generate it.”
You can read more about how the watermark might in fact work in Mark Liberman’s July 25 Language Log post, which, to be honest, strains my extremely modest technical comprehension. So let’s look instead at that word watermark, which branched away from its original aquatic meaning more than three centuries ago.
In design, a watermark is “a distinguishing mark or design impressed into a sheet of paper during manufacture, typically visible only when the sheet is held up to the light,” according to the OED, whose earliest citation for this sense is from 1708. This type of watermark was “probably so called because the watermark, being less opaque than the rest of the paper, had the appearance of having been produced by the action of water.”
Author’s note: Until I researched this post, I’d assumed that water was somehow involved in creating watermarks. I’d envisioned a die being pressed into a watery slurry as paper was being manufactured. But no!