Artificial Intelligence: Universal Saviour or  Existential Threat De Jour?

–co-authored by Phil Friedman

Preface: Over a period of three years a while back, Phil Friedman and I collaborated on a series of about 30 discussion posts on a broad range of topics. We got quite a kick out of doing them, and a fair number of our respective followers clearly enjoyed reading them  Then, I ended up having spinal surgery and dropped out of the world completely for about a year. During the remainder of the intervening time, I wrote some novellas and a bunch of short stories. For his part, Phil became really busy when he took over the management of a boat-building company. But when we stopped writing the series, we agreed that, someday, we’d do a redux. And recently, we asked ourselves, what better place and time to start again than here and now? —Jim

JIM: If you’re anything like me, Phil, you are probably keeping a close eye on the Ai behemoth that is plowing its way through the world, creating, fear, loathing chaos and confusion, deluding the uncreative into believing that they can actually now be creative, and foisting many metric tonnes of crap onto the dung heap of social and even conventional media

My view on this is that, net-net, it’s going make the dumb people even dumber. and a few greedy rich people even richer. It’s going to eventually destroy the concept of learning and the world is going to be saddled with exponentially more idiots than it already has. For a while. Then guess what, it will (IMO) implode beneath the sheer weight of its own bullshit.

There’s a great short story I read in high school entitled “The Machine Stops.” It was written by EM Forster in 1909. It’s all about the kind of culture that would be created when people became totally dependent on his version of today’s Ai. These people knew nothing but what they were told by the machines. They went nowhere because the machines convinced them that the world was a mess and the atmosphere was poisoned. Everything they needed was delivered to them. They were ignorant and afraid. And then one day the machine stopped.

Well, I won’t spoil it by telling you the ending. But the thing that’s getting revved up right now as we speak, is exactly as Mr Forster described it. I do believe we’ll be hearing a lot of stories about people who have been victimized by some Ai-created scam or other and over the long term it could have a serious impact on the economies of stupid countries all over the world.

I think about my grandson, Rowan, who is 12 now. His parents are bright enough to know what’s going on, and he is having his online time restricted to one hour a day. But at some point, they won’t be able to control that. And what about all the other parents of young kids, the ones who both have to work and are perfectly fine with the kids entertaining themselves? How much danger to those kids will the effects of Ai create in their lives? What will it turn them into as they grow?

This is a monster that can touch every aspect of every person’s life. And I honestly believe its rapid acceleration is powered by greed and ego, as opposed to understanding and humanity. Over to you, pal.

PHIL:  Well, Jim, it’s been a while since I was called upon to answer one of your hyperbolic doom-and-gloom diatribes. I had almost forgotten how it feels to watch a sunset and worry that the forces of the universe might be extinguishing the light, permanently.

Anyway, I certainly share your concern for the nature and quality of life our respective progeny will enjoy —  or perhaps, more accurately, endure. But as I have done several times before, I am moved to quote Pogo expounding on the shores of Lake Okefenokee, “We have met the enemy, and he is — us!”

If the doom and gloom you predict, in fact, come to pass, the responsibility will be ours, not that of the Prophets of Ai or the hype they spew daily in their chase for the profits of Ai. Ours because we have unreflectively accepted their hyperbolic claims and lain down on the sacrificial altar of commercial opportunism. I know that’s a mouthful. But beyond being true, it’s virtually self-evident if we only open our eyes and accept the evidence of what we see … and don’t see.

Let’s review, for example, a few pretty self-evident, but almost now universally overlooked facts:

1) The science and reality of robotics have nothing really to do with artificial intelligence (Ai) because robots are programmed to perform tasks such as painting products during manufacture or running through warehouses finding, “picking”, and packing for shipment goods which have been ordered by customers. The robots don’t exercise a whit of judgement, and so are not intelligent, even when equipped with self-correcting (“self-learning”) sub-routines in their drivers.

2) Chatbots are not intelligent in any meaningful sense of the term. They don’t “understand” what humans are saying to them. Instead, what they do is digitize what they “hear” and compare it to a huge database of similarly digitized expressions and known appropriate responses, and by working their way through a set of complex algorithms, select or construct a response that best fits what an analysis of the data indicates most likely fits the exchange. That’s why Chatbots based on large language models (LLMs) work so much better than earlier Chatbots which relied on much smaller databases. But contemporary Chatbots still do not exhibit judgement, only automated data analysis that returns answers in a form that mimics human conversation. And much of the time, the answer is questionable or wrong, notwithstanding hyperbolic commercial claims to the contrary.

When pressed to show us the intelligence, the Prophets of artificial intelligence pointed to denizens like Alexa and Siri. Never mind that, when you ask yourself what is so intelligent about, for instance, the Ai marketing program that Amazon employs on its e-commerce site — you know, the program that recognizes you just purchased a desk chair and sends you information on twenty other desk chairs that it, by its own words, “thinks” you might like to investigate — you are moved to tap out Morse code for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Which is why the Prophets have now moved to distinguishing between Human Intelligence (capital ‘I’) and Ai (small ‘i’). They additionally tell you that they never intended to confuse the issue by using the term Intelligence (capital ‘I’). But they did.

JIM: What you have described in your own inimitable way is the actual reality of what everyone is calling Ai. I guess you could also call it pseudo-intuitive automation if you wanted to be generous about it.

The weird thing is that a lot has happened since the Ai hype machine swung into full gear and started trying to convince the world that it was the next big thing.

First thing that happened of note was that a lot of businesses bought into it and saw it as a way to replace human talent within their companies. And that started a massive exodus of writers across a pretty wide spectrum of activity. That distressed me because, well I’m one of them, not the displaced crowd, because I don’t do that stuff anymore. But I could certainly relate.

The next thing that happened was a whole wave of activity around the idea of plagiarism. Getty Images is leading that charge. I know from experience that they are a take-no-prisoners company that go after anything that smells funny with a vengeance. As this part of the Ai counter movement grows with hungry lawyers prowling the earth, and pissed-off artists and writers everywhere, I can see this being a huge can of worms for the denizens of Ai.

Then there is the commodity side of it. Literally hundreds of companies are being funded by investment bucks, that are soon, if they aren’t already, demanding that their investees begin monetizing their tools to create the ROI that was promised to them. This is where the economy takes a hit, probably over the next two years, as the sheer volume of these businesses fall prey to the good old 80/20 rule, and start to fall by the wayside.

The last issue is one of responsibility. When does the government step in and start setting boundaries and standards for these companies to adhere to? Right now it’s a circus, and like any circus, there are more clowns than actual performers.

I know my opening salvo was kinda doom and gloomish, but it actually was created three weeks ago which in the Ai universe is a light year or two. My thinking, based on new data is now much more pragmatic than romantic.

I believe this stuff will be with us and part of what we have to live with like it or not. My hope is that the cream rises to the top and makes it beneficial. But my fear is that the scammers will master it and use it to up their game, creating more unwitting victims.

Having said that, I’d be interested in how you think we can go about combatting the adverse effects that this wave of bull chips is creating.

PHIL: The first thing is to stop accepting at face value the hyperbolic claims of those who promote Ai, whether for profit or other forms of personal gain or out of abject naïveté. Instead, always ask to be shown examples of clearly demonstrated results. In other words, tell Ai promoters, boosters, and cheerleaders to #SHOWMETHEINTELLIGENCE.

Understand that you don’t have to be an Ai geek or a software engineering genius to do this. All you have to be is intelligent enough to judge if the product placed in front of you (speaking figuratively) is equal to the claim about what you would see. And when you do that, I submit that most, if not all times you will find the reality of what is presented falls far, far short of the claim(s) in question.

Consider, for example, Amazon which bills itself as a leader in Ai development — employment of advanced robotics in their warehouses, development of autonomous delivery vehicles, and so on, including an Ai marketing ChatBot on their e-commerce website that watches what you’re buying and sends you emails with suggestions to look at other products that they carry in which you’re likely to be interested.

Well, that last is a claim, but what’s the reality? When you buy, say, a desk chair from Amazon, the marketing Bot sends you suggestions for a half dozen other … desk chairs.  As though you might be starting a collection of desk chairs. It doesn’t suggest any desks or desk accessories of desk lamps or anything else that, in reality, you might now be interested in buying; it suggests an item of the same type as the item you just purchased. That’s not intelligence, artificial or otherwise; it’s pure idiocy, as well as being a crass misrepresentation of what’s really behind those stupid freakin’ post-purchase marketing emails — which is a crude keyword matching program sans even an iota of “intelligence”.

Or consider the program in California to develop self-driving taxis (SDTs). Yeah, I know, that sounds like a term for a genital disease. Not far off, unfortunately. It turns out that the fleet of SDTs being operated now is racking up more than twice the accident rate as that of ordinary driver-manned taxis. And when that statistic was released, the answer of the developers was that more testing and a bit more engineering refinement were needed, but we’d all see BIG results soon. Bull chips!

Moreover, even if these developers can eventually bring in a product that is as safe as driver-manned taxis, I bet you dollars to donuts that the time and cost to do so will be fifty times that of simply training and certifying a corps of professional taxi drivers, which latter would have the additional benefit of preserving the jobs and incomes of drivers. To my mind, the program is wrong-headed from the start — just like so much of the purported development in Ai.

JIM: What you have described is the entire situation in a couple of meaty nutshells. I know you only cited a couple of examples, but I think the list is much longer and grows larger every day.

The human race, which we have both been a part of for a lot of years, seems to be governed by a lot of things the least of which is respect for humanity. I get the need for pseudo-intelligent machinery to do things that are dangerous and maybe even impossible for humans to do, and in some cases, things that are mind-numbingly tedious for humans.

But through all this hype and it’s coming at us a mile a minute, I get the feeling that it’s really all about greed and who can carve out the biggest slice of whatever this Ai pie turns out to be. There’s no real concern for anything other than getting people to buy into whatever it is they are pushing. There’s no real concern for the amount of human displacement they are creating. Or the dangers of this tech to all of humanity.

At the end of the day, they’re just a bunch of New Age hucksters. It’s funny how history keeps repeating itself. New player. New gizmos. Same old bull chips.

Sincerely Jim & Phil


Jim Murray
Jim Murray
I have been a writer since the age of 14. I started writing short stories and poetry. From there I graduated to writing lyrics for various bands and composers and feature-length screenplays, two of which have been produced. I had a  20-year career in senior positions in Canadian and multi-national agencies and a second career, which began in 1989, (Onwords & Upwords Inc), as a strategic and creative resource. Early in 2020, I closed Onwords & Upwords and effectively retired. I am now actively engaged, through blogging and memes, in showcasing businesses that are part of the green revolution. I am also writing short stories which I will be marketing to film production companies. I live with my wife, Heather, in the beautiful Niagara Region of southern Ontario, after migrating from Toronto, where I spent most of my adult life.

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