AI is eating the web. Not as in coding, but as in its economy.

The Verge has one of the more interesting pieces (to me) about AI that I’ve seen lately, reporting less on “what do these content-making machines mean to us content-makers, aieee!” and more on how these content-making machines are already radically changing the way the web’s biggest companies do business – and it’s only the start:

Like Reddit, Stack Overflow plans to charge firms that scrape its data while building its own AI tools — presumably to compete with them. The fight with its moderators is about the site’s standards and who gets to enforce them. The mods say AI output can’t be trusted, but execs say it’s worth the risk.

All these difficulties, though, pale in significance to changes taking place at Google. Google Search underwrites the economy of the modern web, distributing attention and revenue to much of the internet. Google has been spurred into action by the popularity of Bing AI and ChatGPT as alternative search engines, and it’s experimenting with replacing its traditional 10 blue links with AI-generated summaries. But if the company goes ahead with this plan, then the changes would be seismic.

A writeup of Google’s AI search beta from Avram Piltch, editor-in-chief of tech site Tom’s Hardware, highlights some of the problems. Piltch says Google’s new system is essentially a “plagiarism engine.” Its AI-generated summaries often copy text from websites word-for-word but place this content above source links, starving them of traffic. It’s a change that Google has been pushing for a long time, but look at the screenshots in Piltch’s piece and you can see how the balance has shifted firmly in favor of excerpted content. If this new model of search becomes the norm, it could damage the entire web, writes Piltch. Revenue-strapped sites would likely be pushed out of business and Google itself would run out of human-generated content to repackage.

Again, it’s the dynamics of AI — producing cheap content based on others’ work — that is underwriting this change, and if Google goes ahead with its current AI search experience, the effects would be difficult to predict. Potentially, it would damage whole swathes of the web that most of us find useful — from product reviews to recipe blogs, hobbyist homepages, news outlets, and wikis. Sites could protect themselves by locking down entry and charging for access, but this would also be a huge reordering of the web’s economy. In the end, Google might kill the ecosystem that created its value, or change it so irrevocably that its own existence is threatened.

In some cases, it seems like the perceived threat of AI is being used to justify changes desired for other reasons (as with Reddit), while in others, AI is a weapon in a struggle between workers who create a site’s value and the people who run it (Stack Overflow). There are also other domains where AI’s capacity to fill boxes is having different effects — from social networks experimenting with AI engagement to shopping sites where AI-generated junk is competing with other wares.

In each case, there’s something about AI’s ability to scale — the simple fact of its raw abundance — that changes a platform. Many of the web’s most successful sites are those that leverage scale to their advantage, either by multiplying social connections or product choice, or by sorting the huge conglomeration of information that constitutes the internet itself. But this scale relies on masses of humans to create the underlying value, and humans can’t beat AI when it comes to mass production.

There’s plenty more information at the link, and you can read Piltch’s report here, on Tom’s Hardware.