What If My "Dick Whitman" is AI? (I Am Not Okay With That)

It's been 6 months since "Mad Men" closed a chapter in television history, and I am still in mourning. The writers and producers, let alone the actors, left an indelible mark, especially with the show's primary through-line {spoiler alert}: a "nobody" named Dick Whitman stole his dead commanding officer's identity, and became Don Draper, a somebody.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about how someone was writing decently written articles, using my name, website, and Twitter handle. My wife told me that this situation, unlike so many situations in which credit cards or drivers licenses are stolen, reminded her more of the story of Don Draper--someone appropriates an identity and constructively does something useful with it. I am not nearly as dashing as Jon Hamm, nor as skilled a salesman, but I agreed with the analogy.

But the story doesn't end there. I sent a copy of my story to AllBusiness.com and LifeHack.org. AllBusiness got back to me; LifeHack didn't. The editor David Hennessy was profusely apologetic and understandably mystified why anyone would want to submit articles under someone else's identity. But there was another issue that gnawed away at me: who was the guy in the photo for the fake Michael Prywes's bio?

It turns out that finding the answer was easier than I expected. My best friend, who shall remain unnamed but who I am sure is discoverable by a simple Google search, has excellent sleuthing skills. He did an image search and found the same photo used for an MMA journalist in Detroit named Dave Reno. I got in touch with Dave, who was flabbergasted, and more than a little creeped out that someone likes his face and my name. It was clear, by talking to him, that he was not my name thief.

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And then my best friend pointed something out to me. These articles were well-drafted, but not particularly remarkable, and seemed to be mash-ups of similar articles with similar headlines. They used headlines that appealed to readers (often referred to as "click-bait"). And they often used little pieces of my history to inform its content. Yes, I have been active in the Jewish community, but I could hardly relate to "Only People Who Grew Up Jewish Would Understand These Things." Nobody in my family plays Mah-jongg, and I don't keep kosher. One of my proudest moments as a lawyer occurred when a defendant in one of my cases was disciplined, because I believed she was a psychopath. I became quite publicly knowledgeable about psychopathy, but knew nothing about the relationship between psychopathy and black coffee. Speaking of coffee, I often wax poetic about a good cup of Joe,  and sometimes tea, but I know nothing about Iron Buddha tea. Still, these were headlines that were likely to come from me

My friend said to me, "What if this is all Artificial Intelligence?" That hit me like a brick. It makes perfect sense, except... "But why me? Why this guy in Detroit? Unless..."

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Unless we are not alone. It is virtually statistically impossible that Dave Reno and I are the only random victims of this type of identity theft. In  that case, this type of thing--machine learning creating online journalism, using a random blogger's name and interests while using another random blogger's bio photo--is likely happening to thousands of people the world over, many without their knowledge. Who are they going to report this to? The Internet Journalism Police? I am a huge fan of technology, but suddenly, I understand why Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking are worried about AI.

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Update (11/17): The Detroit writer Dave Reno has given me permission to link to his site FightBooth.com and to mention him by name. This article has been edited to reflect that.