Artillery Row


Have we witnessed the rise of ShappsGPT?

“Could you be a victim of a deepfake scam?” Ed Balls asked viewers of Good Morning Britain. We were waiting for an interview with the Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, but first we were talking about identity fraud. It’s possible this was simply a piece of unfortunate timing, but I prefer to believe that GMB’s producers are creating performance art.

Many politicians — many members of the current Cabinet, frankly — have padded their CVs over the years, but only of Shapps can it be written without fear of contradiction that before entering politics he used to peddle get-rich-quick schemes under false names. If you think such a past would exclude someone from one of the most sensitive jobs in the British government, I can only say that I’m glad to hear you’re out of the coma, and I’d suggest you take it gently as you catch up on what you missed.

New technology assisted by Artificial Intelligence could, co-host Susanna Reid warned, be used to “convince you that you are listening and watching a trusted individual who then persuades you to do something you absolutely should not do”. Were we about to find out how Shapps got his promotion? It certainly sounded like it: “We’re going to show you live on the show how you spot it.”

This wasn’t, as it turned out, a direct reference to the Defence Secretary. Instead we saw Reid’s face imposed onto another woman’s. “That was incredibly convincing,” the real Reid said. This was perhaps overstating things. There was a faint air of implausibility about the whole thing. As the creator pointed out, movements of the head were particularly likely to reveal that you were dealing with a fake. “That’s where you’re going to see the little glitches pop up.” This is also the charitable take on the government: it’s not a disaster, it’s just glitching.

And so to the Defence Secretary, many of whose head movements involved no glitches at all. “I think we can be pretty much assured it is you, Grant Shapps,” Reid began, with a lot more confidence than some of us have ever been able to muster. 

He was there to talk about ships, because this week the Conservatives are trying to win the election by claiming that Labour are a bunch of tofu-munching surrenderists. But one of the joys of GMB is the pleasure it takes in not talking about the agreed subject. 

It turned out Shapps was happy to chat tech. “The power of AI and how it can be used is really revolutionary,” he began. It briefly seemed this might turn into a product pitch from the developer of “Stinking Rich 3”, a piece of software that he once promised would help buyers “make a tonne of cash by Christmas”. Without wanting to be mean, anyone who can be sold something by Shapps deserves to be ripped off.

He’d had more success talking about the ships in his earlier broadcasts of the day. “Today’s announcement is of 28 ships,” he’d told a confused Justin Webb on the BBC. Although it became clear that this was more of an aspiration than a promise. 

“So some of them don’t exist?” Webb asked, carefully. “How many is it?”

“A lot of these are very much in existence,” Shapps replied quickly. Last week he’d been to see HMS Cardiff, which “very much exists”. Though we only have his word for it. 

Webb tried again. How many ships was the government actually promising, as we face what the prime minister has said is the most dangerous era since 1945? 

“We’ve said up to six,” Shapps replied, before clarifying. “We’ll definitely build the first three.”

Three ships, eh? “It’s really a golden era of shipbuilding,” Shapps went on. To put that golden era into context, during the Second World War the UK built 14 aircraft carriers, 240 destroyers, 167 submarines and 450 other vessels. There were also quite a lot of imaginary ships and indeed soldiers, but you’ll have to read my book to find out about those. 

Back on GMB, Shapps was waxing lyrical about the possibilities of AI. A new generation of ChatGPT could produce “much more human-like responses”, he said. Perhaps we’ll get a roll-out at prime minister’s questions tomorrow. 

Was this technology a threat to democracy? “With an election coming up, we’re very keen to make sure …” Shapps paused for half a beat. Was he trying to remember what the government wanted to achieve? “… that it is run properly and fairly.” Phew. Back from the brink.

There were, he agreed, lessons for every voter. Whether it’s talking heads or ships, it was important “to warn people that what they’re seeing, unless it’s been verified, may not be right.” Damn straight, Grant. If that is your real name.

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