From 'de-influencing' to 'AI', dictionary-makers issue their choices for word of the year 2023

All of them seem inspired by AI-related concerns, as the immense popularity of artificial intelligence points to both its transformative impact and the threats it poses

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Fri 1 Dec 2023, 4:49 PM

It’s that time of the year again, when dictionary-makers issue their choices for “word of the year”, hoping to spark off an interest in the way the English language is responding to the challenges of modern life. All of them seem inspired by AI-related concerns, as the immense popularity of artificial intelligence points to both its transformative impact and the threats it poses.

First off the blocks was the Cambridge Dictionary, with “hallucinate”. The traditional meaning of the word is to “to seem to see, hear, feel, or smell something that does not exist, usually because of a health condition or because you have taken a drug”. Today it also refers to the production of false information by AI. As many students have learned to their chagrin from using ChatGPT and the like, AI programmes have an inconvenient habit of making up, or imagining, facts to reply to your questions. This is known as hallucination — except that it’s the AI, not the user, who’s the one hallucinating. As Henry Shevlin, an AI ethicist at Cambridge University, observed, this may be because “it’s so easy to anthropomorphise these systems, treating them as if they had minds of their own”.

The Cambridge dictionary-makers explained that generative AI tools like ChatGPT, Bard and Grok have all been guilty of hallucination. A US law firm’s use of ChatGPT for legal research even led to fictitious cases being cited in court. A problem with AI programmes is that the more original you ask them to be, the greater the risk of hallucination.

The Collins dictionary went one step ahead of Cambridge by choosing “AI” itself as its word of the year for 2023. The dictionary defines AI as “the modelling of human mental functions by computer programmes”.

And Merriam-Webster was next to announce that its word of the year for 2023 is “authentic”, again an acknowledgement of the rise of artificial intelligence and the spread of misinformation on social media platforms. The search for something real and true that one can anchor oneself in is mirrored in a substantial increase in internet searches for the word “authentic” in 2023, which the dictionary says was “driven by stories and conversations about AI, celebrity culture, identity and social media”. Merriam-Webster said being “authentic” is what influencers (another recent word!), celebrities and brands all aspire to.

The risk of AI programmes providing misleading, fallacious or simply false information is a phenomenon of our times, along with its capacity to produce “deepfakes” — seemingly real photographs and videos of people wearing (or not wearing) clothes they have never actually donned, or depicted in situations they were never in. Disinformation (the deliberate manipulation of data for specific purposes) and misinformation (propagation of wrong or misleading information) can have far-reaching consequences in our lives, not least in wars, disasters and elections.

These three Words of the Year, ranging from the realm of the imagined hallucination to the increased need for authenticity, are not surprising. They acknowledge the way artificial intelligence has invaded our lives, our workspaces — and our vocabularies. So do others: “prompt engineering”, “deepfake”, “large language model” (“LLM”), “GPT” (an abbreviation of Generative Pre-trained Transformer) and “GenAI” (generative AI) were among the several thousand words and definitions that these dictionaries also added in 2023.

Other options were, of course, also considered. The Collins dictionary shortlisted many words before AI was selected — but many of those, too, bore the stamp of contemporary technology and the culture of the digital world. “Influencer”, in the context of social media, had already made it, as had other associated words like mega-influencer and micro-influencer, but Collins also shortlisted “deinfluencing” for their word of the year 2023. “Deinfluencing”, according to the dictionary-makers, refers to when influencers use their power “to warn followers to avoid certain commercial products, lifestyle choices, etc.” At the risk of quibbling, I think “deinfluencing” is an unnecessary word, since influencing someone against something is essentially no different from influencing them in favour of it. Thumbs down, Collins!

One sidelight: for those of us who knew certain acronyms for years, we have new abbreviations to digest. “AI” is no longer simply “Air India”, and “LLM” is not just an advanced law degree!

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