Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 1, 2021
The bots are coming. And not just over the horizon, people, but right now, right here, in your computer and smart phone. And they’re coming for you!
Am I being paranoid or realistic? You be the judge.
Recently we had friends over for dinner. It was delightful as always – great conversation and scrumptious food.
Next day I received an email from our guest, which initiated the following email chain:
He wrote: “As always, like a comfortable pair of slippers. Many thanks for a lovely meal and evening.”
Below that was an email from me, subject line “Hi,” written the night before, shortly after they had left. It read:
“Hi Spike, so nice of you to come over this evening for dinner.” That was it.
There was only one problem. I never wrote that email, which I so informed him:
“Indeed. But here’s the weird thing. I don’t remember sending the after-dinner email, and it doesn’t even sound like me. Have the Chinese hacked into my computer? If so, they are very polite.”
Spike responded, “In fact it sounded stiff for you – but I checked the sender’s email before I replied.”
To which I replied, “Just read a piece in today’s NYT about a guy who allowed A.I. [artificial intelligence] to finish his (mediocre) review of a new book on A.I. Pretty funny. Which is what I think happened. (I prefer to think this than to think that I am losing my mind, though that is entirely possible.) A.I. figured out from my calendar that you guys were coming to dinner, dug out your email address from my phone and sent the bland note. If only I could prove it. Grist for a column!”
Spike concluded our exchange with this mordant observation: “So, welcome to 1984 with big brother? Yikes – the camel’s nose…”
Funny? I think not.
The aforementioned article, by New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose, was a review of “The Age of AI” by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher. Roose didn’t think much of the book, calling it “fairly forgettable.” But more interestingly, he decided to use an A.I. app called Sudowrite to compose parts of the review itself. He reported the first few iterations were no threat to Hemingway, though personally I loved this version:
“The book which you are reading at the moment is a book on a nook, which is a book on a book, which is a book on a subject, which is a subject on a subject, which is a subject on a subject.”
Could E.E. Cummings have said it better?
Eventually, the A.I. app got it kind of straight and wrote a bland review. Bland, like:
“Hi Spike, so nice of you to come over this evening for dinner.”
Yes, clearly A.I. has infiltrated our lives. And given that Artificial Intelligence works essentially by teaching itself, we’ll never be entirely sure what goes on in the recesses of its dark heart and even darker brain.
The good news (there’s always an upside) is that soon we’ll be able to use A.I. as an excuse for all manner of screw-ups.
Why was I late? A.I. said traffic was clear!
What was the reason for my nasty, impulsive email? It wasn’t me!
Even kids can get into it. What happened to my homework? Well, you know the answer.
Perhaps A.I. can even finish this column. It might go like this:
‘This is a column about a column. It’s a slalom of a column. It is solemn, because, after all, the times they are a changing, ranging and very stranging.”