Monthly Archives: May 2023

Coming soon: Robot Overlords, Sentient AI and more

To paraphrase Paul Fussell, progress is just one damn thing after another. And frankly, I want out. This 21st century is turning out to be tiresome, troublesome and exhausting. So far there’s nothing cool, like transporters; there’s no warp drive, no Star Fleet, and to date (to my everlasting disappointment) no Klingon has attacked me, batleth in hand, for insulting their warrior honour. No fun stuff in other words.

(OK, I’ll admit smartphones can be cool and damn useful at times but they’re tools, people, not a substitute for real life.)

The current threat looming (Covid having been declared null and void by the WHO*) is Artificial Intelligence (AI) which, we are told, is becoming too smart for its own good and will soon outsmart humans. Then again, given some of the humans I’ve met along the way that wouldn’t be difficult.

Soon, apparently, we will all be toiling for our robot overlords. (Of course what a sentient AI would want other than reams of power which surely we could, er, unplug, is beyond me. I mean, think about it. No matter how smart AI gets, it’s still a machine and you can cut the cord – literally. Destroy those banks of power-eating computers feeding it.)

Clichés R Us

Now there’s a marvelous cliché: robot overlords. I like it because it’s kind of funny and reminiscent of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. But really the phrase is a rather flippant way of shifting the argument away from what seems to me to be a very real problem: the increasing digitalization of daily life. Where we spend half our time trying to fix problems we had no hand in creating because some drop down menu or web site or app refused to work.

All this talk of scary-boo AI seems to me to have become the worst kind of cliché, one that obscures how our lives have become more complicated and more frustrating as apps and bots and cyber-whatsits take over.

The trouble with clichés, as Alain de Botton wrote in How Proust Can Change Your Life, is not that they are wrong or contain false ideas but more that they are “superficial articulations of good ones”. Cliches are oversimplifications that become so commonplace we stop noticing the more serious subtext. (This is rife in medicine where metaphors such as talk of “replacing” organs through transplants makes people believe it’s akin to changing the oil filter in your car. Or whatever it is EV’s have these days that needs replacing.)

The real trouble isn’t the evil AI looming but the stupid ones already here.

From apps to those ubiquitous bar-code thingummies you’re supposed to photograph and zip to some web site or menu or what-have-you, we’ve all gone digital mad. (I use the term “we” loosely. Most of us had nothing to do with it.) Ably accelerated by the Covid fears of the last years (Me? Touch a paper menu full of “germs”? Are you nuts?! We could all die!) suddenly everything from a price list to an airline ticket is only accessible via smartphone. This not only excludes anyone without one – or anyone with a disability which precludes their using one – but also cuts back on staff, you know, the humans who could answer a question in twelve seconds whereas poking at a screen takes that many minutes. It’s also daft, oftentimes irritating as hell and prone to disruption (which you blame on your ineptitude).

Case in point. My bank card got eaten by an ATM on foreign shores not long ago. I got the card back, not without some difficulty and a fair amount of anxiety, but then it turned out the money I never took out before the machine ate my card had been debited from my account. Calling the bank which now has a single phone number for everything proved, ah, challenging. After I pressed umpteen numbers, I was then greeted by a nauseatingly cheery cyber voice, insisting I tell it what my problem was so it could put me through to the correct agent, since merely saying “agent” or “representative” or “f-ing human” proved pointless. Every combination of words I tried failed – problem with international debit, ATM ate my card but the money was withdrawn – or resulted in a three minute explanation of how to do a debit. Then, click, the cheery bot hung up on me.

When I finally got through to an actual human (after my fifth call – don’t ask me how as it remains a deep dark mystery) things went pretty smoothly and as far as I know the problem is on its way to being solved. Well at least I hope it will; who knows what could happen down the road. I did ask the agent whether furious clients yelled at him because they were so angry at the bot and he just sighed and said, “Don’t get me started.”

So the poor human gets the ire that should be directed at the bot, which doesn’t care because it is not, at least so far, sentient.

Then there are apps, which is where you do not want to get me started. Every store you’ve stepped into, every coffee shop you’ve ever frequented, every search for some random item on the internet results in an invitation to download their app. Parking on a Vancouver city street now requires an app if you have the misfortune to park next to an older meter without change in your pocket.

I will not bore you with details, suffice it to say, in a moment of weakness, I actually thought I might download the parking app. (In my defense it was a seriously good parking space.) After I had agreed to let them share my personal information with Lucifer et al there was some kind of zig-zag and suddenly I was being told I could download Movies! Music! TV shows! Er, excuse me? How did “Vancouver City Parking” result in entertainment? Nothing entertaining about parking in Vancouver, trust me. So there I stood, in a rather chilly wind, futzing with phone. And since the only actual humans in the parking world these days are the ones lurking, waiting to give you a ticket ten seconds after your time has expired, I gave up and moved the car.

(You have, by the bye, not lived until you’ve watched some poor tourist in a rented vehicle attempt to figure out Vancouver parking. I watched an older gentleman dart back and forth between their back license plate while his wife, in the driver’s seat, pushed buttons as she glared at her phone.)

Ironically, experts tell us to be cautious with apps as sharing all that private information puts us at risk.

Sentient AI? Oh please. How much worse could that be? I guess we could learn some new and interesting curse words along the way – or meet HAL – but for now it’s just dumb and dumber bots and creepy internet ads that stalk you wherever you go.

As far as I’m concerned you can bring on those robot overlords. They can’t be any worse than the corporate ones we have now.


* Though I did read in the paper that some new variant of Covid, nicknamed Arcturus, is lurking out there. This apparently can cause pink eye (conjunctivitis). Um, last I heard, pink eye was bacterial. Wash your hands, don’t touch your eyes, and, if you really do get conjunctivitis, there are over-the-counter drops that will get rid of it in a few days. Stop fretting.