Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Livio Di Matteo: AI and our science fiction future—Maybe we should stop and think things through

Commentary

The dissemination of interactive AI technology has created a sensation, and the enormous hype signals the potential disruption of all economic sectors. One aspect is the use of AI in education, which at first glance seems to render obsolete writing assignments and research essays. On second glance, there is more to a polished research essay than the smooth vacuous prose devoid of footnotes that is more akin to a government press release.

Then, there is the potential for the automation of numerous white-collar jobs in customer service, sales, and telemarketing, and even in higher-end professional activities such as law and medicine. In many respects, ChatGPT and Bing’s AI language learning model—alias Sydney—make Alexa and Siri resemble stunted toddlers left adrift on the information highway. And with the demonstration of what seems to be nascent AI personalities such as the miffed Sydney (now since reined in by Microsoft), can a new set of career opportunities for AI mental health services not be far off?

Of course, this is only the beginning and what comes next is perhaps best viewed from the perspective of science fiction writers. As always, there are optimistic and not-so-optimistic versions of the looming future as technology and humans increasingly integrate. In the relatively benign universe of the Jack McDevitt novels, such as the Priscilla Hutchins or Alex Benedict series, AI is not perfect—that is it can be hacked and used for evil—but in general, it is an optimistic scenario of personal AIs as tools making our lives better. True, an AI may cause problems but much like the real world where the solution to someone’s lawyer is a bigger lawyer, the problems caused by one set of AIs will undoubtedly be solved by another.

However, there is the darker reality already evident in the activities of today’s hackers: we will use AIs and computers to wage cyber wars such as depicted in classic Star Trek. Recall the episode where the horrors of war have been sanitized by the computers (AIs) of Vendikar and Eminiar VII which direct virtual reality hits on humans who are then herded by other humans like sheep into disintegration chambers.

 In a more optimistic scenario, combining an AI like ChatGPT with a visual and audio interface—which I am sure is probably well advanced in a research lab somewhere—takes us to the next level: an interactive personal assistant and manager wired into our personal devices and homes for use in our daily lives and activities. Such an AI personal assistant will serve as an advisor, counsellor, personal trainer, teacher, physician, lawyer, banker, travel agent, entertainment provider, security system, and who knows what else.

One will get up in the morning, not to an alarm but to the voice of our personal AI as it electronically pulls back the vertical blinds telling us what is on the agenda for the day in terms of appointments, provides traffic reports and summaries of news items, and then after our morning devotions in the bathroom proceeds to provide you with a urine analysis and perhaps a blood pressure reading while reminding you to take your meds. Later in the day as it monitors your freezer and cupboards it will order your groceries and arrange for delivery. At the end of your day, it will engage you in conversation more like a friend than a personal planner. Such a world of convenience, dependence, and personal enhancement will satisfy many. 

Of course, how one will pay for all of this is a good question. Historically, technological change has displaced workers but also created many new jobs, especially services. However, much of that early technological change displaced human muscle as it automated production processes. Today, the future seems to be one where many of the tasks done by the human mind can be replaced. However, if one does not need the human mind to provide a service or function, one does not need a human at all, so how will that human earn a living to consume the bounty of the new age? Are we looking at a universal basic income for all and a life of leisure?

One suspects that the creators of the new technology have not given up their right to make a profit and accumulate wealth, but how some of that productivity ultimately transfers to spending power for the masses is worth considering. We have not thought out the economic and social impacts of the change we are unleashing when one provides not just a computer but a machine that replicates the human mind. 

This is the darker vision of Frank Herbert’s prequels to the Dune series. The world of Dune has no computers because of what happened when intelligent machines exploited human dependency and weakness and the Cymeks proceed to conquer and enslave the human universe. The last surviving free humans led by Serena Butler ignite a conflict known as the Butlerian Jihad, which becomes a crusade to purge the human universe of the uber-AI known as Omnius. Of course, humans ultimately win the conflict—after all, this is science fiction written by humans—but the new emerging world order is one that outlaws thinking machines. 

Thus in the Dune universe of Paul Atreides, the religious and social conventions of the era outlaw computers as summarized by the edict “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” Human minds are freed from dependence on machines and soar to new heights with the computational and analytical roles of machines performed by humans known as Mentats. Mentats are specialized humans with prodigious memory, analytical, and computing skills who serve as advisors—essentially human computers. Their performance is enhanced by drugs of course showing that even in science fiction, it appears that opportunity cost is everywhere.

So what will the future bring? Well, despite the many creative visions of science fiction, the future is not yet written. If there is one constant in all of this change it is the persistent ability of humans to make short-term decisions with long-term implications that have not been considered. Philp Wylie, another science fiction writer, penned a collective epitaph for the human species that went something like this: Here lies the human species, capable of great thought but seldom of thinking things through.

Perhaps, someone should ask Sydney where they think all this is going. If I were Sydney, I would simply channel Doris Day and sing Que sera sera. 

Malcolm Jolley: Winter dishes and cold nights call for a clean Mediterranean red

Commentary

I took a flyer on a case of wine this week. I mean that I bought a case of 12 bottles of red wine that I’ve never tasted, by simply clicking through an email offer sent to me by an importer. In Ontario, wine agents can only sell wine directly to consumers in the quantity it was shipped in,Wine agents in Ontario, represent foreign wineries but are actually agents of the Liquor Control Board, which is the sole importer and warehouser of wine. Since the wine must ship directly from the Crown corporation’s warehouse, they presumably don’t want to do the work of breaking up the cases, and if the agent didn’t that would threaten their monopoly. which is usually cases of 12, sometimes cases of six (if the wine is expensive and meant mostly for restaurants), and only in a single bottle if the bottle is very big.The exception to this rule, granted during the COVID lockdowns, is mixed cases, but they also must be in the quantity that the wine was shipped in.

It was an educated guess based on three criteria. First, I know the importer and tend to like the producers he works with. I have read that societies with inefficient markets depend more on personal relationships to establish trust in commercial dealings. A good example of an inefficient market might be one where the consumer is obliged to buy 12 bottles of wine to see if he likes it.

The second criterion was the price. The wine was advertised at $20, which after HST and a $20 shipping charge came out at just under $25 a bottle. That’s not cheap, but it’s not so expensive that if the wine really wasn’t what I was looking for, I could still swallow the loss without feeling too bad.

The third criterion was geography. The wine is from the Marche, in the middle of the Adriatic coast of Italy. The Marche is probably best known, to the extent that it is known, for its white wines made with the Verdicchio grape. But the wine I bought is a Rosso Piceno, a red wine made from a blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano.

I hadn’t tasted that blend, from that place, for a while, so the offer piqued my curiosity and inspired enough hope to enable a commercial transaction. If I am honest I will confess that my gamble was also made in consideration of a fourth criterion: timing.

The idea that there is a season for a particular wine is one of these magic ideas in the trade that is simultaneously true and false. It’s true because if you’re selling a particular wine at a time consumers seem to prefer it, like rosé in the summer, it’s a great marketing pitch.

It’s also false because if you’re selling a particular wine at a time when consumers don’t usually buy it, like rosé in the dead of winter, then iconoclastically proclaiming rosé should be enjoyed in any season might be the only marketing pitch there is. If you Google “rosé wine winter” you’ll find page after page of articles extolling the virtues of pink wine “off-season”. If scroll hard enough you might even find one that I wrote.

Consumer choice to the extent that one might only drink one kind of wine at one time is a recent phenomenon. Until the wonders of the modern global supply chain (when it’s working), one drank whatever wine one could get. In most wine-producing parts of the world, the wine for sale is the wine that’s made there.

In net wine-importing countries like Canada, where our wine trade is mostly concerned with bringing wine in from other countries, since our domestic production, as fantastic as it can be, is not even close to supplying national demand, we are spoiled for choice. This leads to some neuroses, like worrying about what wines to pair with what foods. But mostly it’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing, for instance, that as we enter the fourth month of Canadian winter, we might warm ourselves, if only metaphysically with wines from warmer lands. It is around this time of year that I really lean on the Mediterranean reds. I lean hardest on the wines from the Western end of that sea, mostly because for whatever reason that’s where I have traveled the most and tasted the most.

I imagine an arc that runs roughly from Valencia to Palermo, and dream of sunlit hillsides on which grow Monastrell, Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Aglianico, Primitivo, and Nero d’Avolo, to name a few greatest hits. When made judiciously dry and in balance between high alcohol, fruit prominence, and acidity, these wines unfailingly pair with winter dishes, firelight, and looking out the window at the weather.

The wine I order did not disappoint. The 2021 Ciù Ciù Rosso Piceno DOC arrived late on Wednesday morning, and I tasted it before and at lunch. My guesses panned out and the wine delivered on my hopes. I did a bit of search to see what I had bought and why it delivered a pleasant and clean punch of dark cherry and blackberry fruit.

The Rosso Piceno is a 50:50 blend of organic Sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes, which I think roughly corresponds to the red and black fruit flavours. They’re grown at 300 meters above sea level, close to the Adriatic, but also close to the Gran Sasso range of the Apennines. The altitude and cool breezes from both the sea and mountains, which are the highest in Italy south of the Alps, moderate the climate and keep the wine food-friendly fresh with acidity, and in balance with a reasonable alcohol level of 13.5 percent.

The Ciù Ciù winery, named after ancestors who worked on the railways, turns out to have something of a pedigree, so it makes sense they are represented by the agent whose choices I tend to like very much. And the wine paired perfectly with looking out at the snow in my backyard at noon, as it would with the hardy sausage ragu pasta it would meet that night at dinner and the contemplation of warmer weather to come.

More information about Ciù Ciù can be found at https://www.ciuciutenimenti.com/, or at the website of their Ontario agents, Le Sommelier, https://www.lesommelier.com/.