A Brave New World: The AI Invasion

It seems everywhere now and every day its capabilities grow exponentially. Were it science fiction, we could suspend disbelief, but no, it’s brick and mortar of today’s living space, architect of our present and, like a Mars landing spaceship, crewed by humans, powering us into new frontiers beyond the limits of imagination.

We call it Artificial Intelligence, or AI, the subset of machine learning algorithms. Prototyping the human brain, AI maps our cognitive processes, enabling a computer, computer controlled robot, or software entity to think like you and me.

AI’s prowess dwarfs the best human minds and, daily, it grows smarter still.

In 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue defeated the world’s champion chess player.

Today, we take for granted speech recognition, robotic process automation, video surveillance, facial recognition, and what we call smart homes. It lies behind your smartphone’s Siri, or Amazon’s ability to track your consumer choices, or Google Search, speeding you to your targeted page among an electronic galaxy of several billion websites, all in micro seconds.

How many of us know that AI was instrumental in developing the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) vaccine, its algorithm capable of predicting the RNA sequence of the virus in a mere 27 seconds, or 120 times faster than previous methods?

Currently, AI machines are servile to our needs. They’re singular in their applications, their memory subject to our input. This may not always be so in our future, which may have already begun.

What’s coming is an AI that comprehends thoughts and emotions and can interact socially, AI machines, not only intelligent, but sentient and conscious.

They’ll soon earmark the new economy, with 9% of all new jobs being in the AI machine learning, and automation realm. Most AI engineer jobs currently average an annual median salary of $131,490, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s a scenario none of us will escape. In a recent New York Times interview, entrepreneur Elon Musk predicted artificial intelligence or robots would assume most human jobs in the next five years.

Fortune Magazine extends that time element to 15 years, with 40% of our current jobs being replaced by AI robots.

Custom service reps are already being replaced by FAQs to answer queries.

Bookkeeping and data entry, relics of a bygone era, have been replaced by AI and machine learning.

Going and gone are receptionists in hotels, with automatic check-ins and checkouts the order of the day.

Fast food chains will increasingly move to automated service. You push the tab, a robot fills your order, and that includes the packaging. An automatic McDonalds opened near Fort Worth, Texas, recently.

In publishing, proofreaders will become an extinct species. What with apps like Grammarly, who needs them?

Drones and robots will transform delivery services.

Shopping malls, a once ubiquitous landscape feature, are already closing doors as retail moves online, staffs are cut, orders computerized, and consumer preferences anticipated. We already know what Amazon has done to bookshops.

Taxi and bus drivers will increasingly vanish as transportation gets automated. The Los Angeles Times says that self-driving trucks could replace 1.7 million American truckers over the next ten years. What you see in the automatic transit systems of our larger airports will become standard fare.

Think medicine’s safe from AI’s inroads? Think again! Radiologists will be an endangered species, given AI’s superior ability to read images. “AI can see things the human eye can’t,” says Eric Topol of Scripps Research.

Diagnostic selfies are on the way. Never mind the dermatologist. Your app will spot any skin cancer.

Tomorrow’s economy will be powered increasingly by fewer workers as automation, fueled by AI, takes hold. The economic fallout promises to be staggering, resulting in heightened inequity and its consequent disruption of the loop of productivity, rising wages, and increased consumerism. In fact, it’s already happening, with just 5% of households responsible for 40% of spending.

Society will need restructuring, urgently so, to preempt social breakdown as the plural weight of an aging population, rising costs for education and medicine, depletion of natural resources and climate change exercise their grip.

Where is all of this taking us? Are we about to create a Frankenstein monster? Is AI destined to become sentient and even more so than ourselves?

I’m not there yet. Sentient shouldn’t be used lightly. It deals with sensory apprehension. It can be argued that some animals have this capacity.

AI, however, remains a logic construct. While it can assess our syllogistic reasoning for its fallacies, it can’t attribute emotion, the collective consequence of sensory interchange via a robust neural network, to its surveillance.

But that doesn’t dissipate the threat that AI may ultimately become too damn smart for our own good! Isaac Asimov posed the threat acutely in his 1956 short story, The Last Question, with humans creating Multilac, a super intelligent machine that ultimately subverts human control and subsumes every aspect of existence.

The creation of maverick Elon Musk’s OpenAI GPT-3 is getting a lot of hype as the best we’ve seen imitating human intelligence, if not the largest artificial neural network ever created. This is the third version to date.

Educators are in consternation over ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence bot offshoot of GPT-3, released in November 2022, with already more than a million users and currently free. ChatGPT exhibits extraordinary finesse at mirroring creative capacities of our finest human minds, despite infinitely lacking the human brain’s 100 trillion-plus synapses. Feed a few inquiries into the topic box and it spews out answers, can write an essay, summarize a report, translate languages, even compose a poem—all in seconds.

If English teachers thought Cliff Notes a bane, God help them now. As for universities, the academic integrity of your traditional thesis and dissertation is at stake. It isn’t a perfect technology. It can give silly results, but it may get better.

The bottomline is that if sentient machines are ultimately coming our way, it behooves us to inaugurate an ethical framework for their governance. As Yuval Harari warns, “Netflix tells us what to watch and Amazon tells us what to buy. Eventually within 10 or 20 or 30 years such algorithms could also tell you what to study at college and where to work and whom to marry and even whom to vote for.”

Meanwhile, high tech continues promoting machine learning to enhance profitability over public welfare. It’s a brave new world!


The Vanishing World of Touch

Not long ago I celebrated in my brimmings blog the realm of touch, so wonderfully depicted by my favorite nature writer, Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses. What she doesn’t touch upon is the increasing loss of that tactile dimension in a virtual age powered by Artificial Intelligence now pushed to the forefront by the corona pandemic. Nearly a third of us now work from our homes. Fewer of us are needed. Sadly, we are probably witnessing the loss of a way of life to which we won’t fully return: fewer teachers, doctors, etc. , increased surveillance, a cadre of workers, many of color, working as grocery clerks, industrial farm laborers, or from remote warehouses.

The loss of a tactile world undermines the human enterprise for which social media becomes a poor substitute. And then the outcome for families, the stress of uncertainty and limited horizons of opportunity in a touchless society where we no longer shake hands, give hugs, or bestow a kiss upon the cheek, airport embraces of coming and going reduced to impalpable memory.

As never before in a world such as ours, we are children in the night needing to be held and to be loved. We cannot live happily in a world of reduced signifiers of human belonging. Touch is the lingua franca fundamental to our destiny.


Internet Ghouls Among Us: The Robin Williams Aftermath

williamsI haven’t any doubt that the vast majority of us mourn the tragic death of Robin Williams, who brought laughter into our hearts and with it, wisdom too. And yet there are always a few, the ghouls  I call them, who surface in such tragedies to verbally vandalize our grief with mindless, and often, acerbic commentary.

Recently a bicyclist was killed here in Lexington KY by a speeding motorist, only to have one Facebook reader comment that bicyclists shouldn’t be on the streets. Pray then, where should they ride? On sidewalks?

But it gets worse than such obvious, and silly, over-generalization. We’ve all come across those who practice a calculated meanness in exploiting social media for personal whim. These ghouls cannot tolerate an opinion different from their own, particularly when it comes to religion or politics, subjects notorious for generating heat.

But ghouls also show up in Amazon book reviews, for instance, or even in discussion forums that, more often than not, are dominated by one perspective. Cross the line, and you get personal attack rather than reasoned argument. I saw this recently in a forum perusing the effectiveness of a low carb vs low fat diet. When one reader contended graciously for the low fat approach the forum became a piling on of verbal abuse. I dub this the cascading effect, or the tendency of one negative comment to generate others.

But returning to Robin Williams, his daughter Zelda has just closed her Twitter account. She had been receiving photo shop images of her father’s body along with obscene commentary.

What transforms otherwise ordinary folks we rub elbows with everyday into Internet ghouls?

It goes back to anonymity, or the disconnect effect. When we lose face-to-face contact replete with body language and verbal cues of tone, we drift perilously close to abandoning the etiquette of meaningful communication in losing connection with our readers. Mental short cuts take over and we say dumb things.  We forfeit empathy.

But in all fairness, the disconnect effect isn’t confined to the Internet. I have known this first hand as a English teacher at the college level. It’s the writing act itself that submits us to this danger, whether an email, a letter, or an opinion piece in a newspaper. Accordingly, the fundamental axiom of all effective communication, written or oral, is maintaining awareness of one’s audience, which should spill over into our selecting our words carefully, monitoring our tone, shaping our transitions, being open to a reader’s perspective. Mindfulness is the seasoning of all effective communication.

And yet my counsel hardly proves sufficient to hold off the myriad ghouls who troll the Internet, unleashing their venom abetted by anonymity, or what Stephen King once aptly called “the alligators resident within human nature.” Frustrated with their own lives, envious of others, low in self-esteem, they seek to empower themselves by verbally dismembering others

While the social media can be invaluable in consolidating humanity for good ends, by its very nature, it is not without risk, so best be careful where you tread and cautious in what you reveal about yourself.

The vast majority of Internet users are motivated with good intent; but it takes just a few to spoil things for the many.


Technology and the shrinking of community

I just read Frank Somerville’s recent post (July 3) on Facebook. For the record, he’s the nightly news anchor on KTVU in Oakland, CA. I don’t live anywhere near the West Coast, so I don’t get to watch him, but Somerville keeps a page on Facebook that I read daily for its keen insights, sensitivity, and passion for social justice. Thank goodness he’s out there and how I wish there were more people like him, concerned about doing the right thing.

I say this because, quite frankly, I’m damned tired of running into people on a daily basis who, just the opposite, are full of themselves in their thoughtlessness towards others, and making matters worse, frequently mean and calculatingly offensive. Unfortunately, the downside of technology can be the marginalization of community, despite a plethora of social media.

10351899_743347829061880_8323386999323754107_nSomerville laments how many people use the Internet to get back at others. Case in point, a waitress posting the $69 dining bill of former Oakland Raider Warren Sapp, who hadn’t left her a tip. Clearly, she sought to embarrass and humiliate Sapp, who later said that he didn’t like the service and her calling him and his friends boys. I know that I’ve done the same thing as Sapp on rare occasions. Tipping is a way of saying thank you and, likewise, an incentive to serve the public well. In Europe, you don’t generally tip, since a service charge is included, and, believe me, the service can get pretty lousy.

Meanness, unfortunately, runs amuck on the Internet due to the anonymity it provides for angry types low on self-image seeking compensation. I remember Edgar Allen Poe writing in his goose-bumpy short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” of that most perfect kind of vengeance that allows its perpetrator impunity, or escape from accountability.

I often see Poe’s maxim raise its ugly head in reader comments, especially in discussion forums, and of course, par excellence, Twitter and Facebook. I find myself aghast, not only at the repugnant foreclosure of other viewpoints, but the sheer cowardice it masks, latent with resentment and a need to enhance self by controlling others or turning them into punching bags. Sadly, there have been instances where such verbal pugilism has taken on fatal consequences.

More often, I see the pervasive fallout of anonymity virtually daily when, like Somerville (more below), I’m driving, motorists who think rules are for other people–deliberately running traffic lights, stop signs, or not yielding right of way, or pulling out in front of you, or not signaling, or slowing traffic to a snail’s pace while on their cell phone or texting in public mastabatory self-indulgence.

My wife came home the other day, telling me of a woman who turned in front of her at a three way stop. She gave her the horn, getting the one finger salute in return. I’ve counseled her to not let such ilk spoil her day. You also just don’t know who you’re up against. Stats tell us an estimated 1500 die in road rage incidents every year. Anyway, I sometimes think there really is a bit of karma going around and that the chickens ultimately come home to roost.

Somerville ends his blog with his account of a guy with a mounted camera on his dash who comes up behind him “for no apparent reason” as he is on his way to work. Turns out, he can’t get rid of him. Pulling over, the guy draws along side of him, and Somerville, not wanting the incident to escalate, calmly asks, “What are you doing?, only to have the guy grin and keep videotaping him. Speeding off, Somerville finally loses him.

Hey, so creepy! You just never know what kind of oddball that anonymity may confront you with next.



Will tablets replace your TV? The new frontier of online video


Just came across an interesting piece in the Economist  (November 9, 2013) on the growing popularity of online video in China that threatens TV.  In fact, a recent Chinese government reports says that only 30% of Beijing households watched TV in 2012.  Online video is big bucks in China with some 450 million viewers, or 80% of the connected population.    

We haven’t seen this drift in the West where TV sets are on 5 hours a day in the average American home.  That doesn’t mean China’s online video craze won’t happen here.  Who could have predicted the rapid downturn in PC demand that followed the rise of tablets three years ago?   Computers once priced in the $1000 range can be had now for $300 or less.  What’s more, tablet users are increasingly prone to downloading Amazon or iTune TV and movie offerings to their tablets.  Cable and satellite networks like DirecTV are catching on, and so you’re not confined to your TV anymore for personal viewing.  There they are, with all the convenience of portability, right on your tablet!  Hey, let’s not leave out Netflix.

And then there’s always been the ubiquitous YouTube, more popular than ever.  Forbes.com tells us that in 2012 one hour of YouTube video was uploaded every second.  In short, video making, like self-publishing, has become the province of the everyday Joe.   According to Brent Weinstein, Head of Digital Media at United Talent Agency, “Online video today is what TV was a couple of years after it came on to the scene” (Forbes.com).

YouTube, in fact, has been a honing ground for developing sophisticated expertise, spilling over into start up multi-channel networks (MCNs) such as Ted, TubeFilter and Kaltura-Connect coms with their dedicate devotees.

The big ops can read the tea leaves.  Just the other day I saw this catchy Hulu ad.  Get your first week free, then enjoy your favorite TV shows on your tablet for just $7.95 monthly.  With prices like that, cable and satellite TV had better watch out.

Of course we’re still talking about original TV programming, even if rechanneled; nevertheless, it isn’t hard to figure out where the math is taking us.  The bottom-line is that a revolutionary change in how we get our information and entertainment is underway.

According to the Economist, Chinese online video entrepreneurs started competing directly with TV programming five years ago, coming up with their own programming.  In the U. S,  you can see this same trend reflected in  Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu making their own programs to sidestep licensing costs and gain access to a potentially huge market.  Very soon, we’ll be talking about mobile networks.

For families who like to do their viewing together, no problem.  Internet TV is on its way and of course with Apple TV, no problem transferring your tablet videos, music and photos to a larger screen right now.

Usually the scenario is that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.  With China, what’s happening marks a seismic shift.  Better, anyway, than its usual export of Asian flu!


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