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Words of the Year Reveal Our Biggest Fears

The moment we’ve all breathlessly waited for is finally here: Dictionaries are announcing their words of the year. In December, the US’s most esteemed lexicon, Merriam-Webster, revealed its choice: “authentic.”

In its announcement, the dictionary said the word had seen a big jump in searches this year, thanks to discussions “about AI, celebrity culture, identity, and social media.” The concept of authenticity sits at the intersection of what’s been on our collective minds.

Large language models like ChatGPT and image generators like Dall-E have left us uncertain about what’s genuine, from student essays to the pope’s fashion choices. When it comes to the news, online mis- and disinformation, along with armies of bots, have us operating under different sets of facts.

Sure enough, other leading dictionaries’ words of the year are remarkably similar. Cambridge chose “hallucinate,” focusing its announcement on generative AI: “It’s capable of producing false information – hallucinations – and presenting this information as fact.” Collins didn’t beat around the bush: its word of the year is “AI.”

In a polarized world, the dictionaries’ solidarity suggests there’s something we can all agree on: robots are terrifying. AI is an obsession that seems to cross generations. Whether you’re a boomer or Gen Z, OpenAI feels like a sign of change far beyond NFTs, the metaverse, and all the other fads we were told would transform humanity.

Social media feeds have become carefully curated extensions of ourselves—like little aspirational art projects. As Merriam-Webster points out, authenticity itself has become a performance. In other words, we’re getting very good at pretending to be real.

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