Journal tags: intelligence



You can call me AI

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of initialisms and acronyms. They can be exclusionary.

It bothers me doubly when everyone is talking about AI.

First of all, the term is so vague as to be meaningless. Sometimes—though rarely—AI refers to general artificial intelligence. Sometimes AI refers to machine learning. Sometimes AI refers to large language models. Sometimes AI refers to a series of if/else statements. That’s quite a spectrum of meaning.

Secondly, there’s the assumption that everyone understands the abbreviation. I guess that’s generally a safe assumption, but sometimes AI could refer to something other than artificial intelligence.

In countries with plenty of pastoral agriculture, if someone works in AI, it usually means they’re going from farm to farm either extracting or injecting animal semen. AI stands for artificial insemination.

I think that abbreviation might work better for the kind of things currently described as using AI.

We were discussing this hot topic at work recently. Is AI coming for our jobs? The consensus was maybe, but only the parts of our jobs that we’re more than happy to have automated. Like summarising some some findings. Or perhaps as a kind of lorem ipsum generator. Or for just getting the ball rolling with a design direction. As Terence puts it:

Midjourney is great for a first draft. If, like me, you struggle to give shape to your ideas then it is nothing short of magic. It gets you through the first 90% of the hard work. It’s then up to you to refine things.

That’s pretty much the conclusion we came to in our discussion at Clearleft. There’s no way that we’d use this technology to generate outputs for clients, but we certainly might use it to generate inputs. It’s like how we’d do a quick round of sketching to get a bunch of different ideas out into the open. Terence is spot on when he says:

Midjourney lets me quickly be wrong in an interesting direction.

To put it another way, using a large language model could be a way of artificially injecting some seeds of ideas. Artificial insemination.

So now when I hear people talk about using AI to create images or articles, I don’t get frustrated. Instead I think, “Using artificial insemination to create images or articles? Yes, that sounds about right.”

A song of AIs and fire

The televisual adaption of Game of Thrones wrapped up a few weeks ago, so I hope I can safely share some thoughts with spoilering. That said, if you haven’t seen the final season, and you plan to, please read no further!

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the style of the final series or two. To many people, it felt weirdly …off. Zeynep’s superb article absolutely nails why the storytelling diverged from its previous style:

For Benioff and Weiss, trying to continue what Game of Thrones had set out to do, tell a compelling sociological story, would be like trying to eat melting ice cream with a fork. Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories. They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job.

Let’s leave aside the clumsiness of the execution for now and focus on the outcomes.

The story finishes with Bran as the “winner”, in that he now rules the seve— six kingdoms. I have to admit, I quite like the optics of replacing an iron throne with a wheelchair. Swords into ploughshares, and all that.

By this point, Bran is effectively a non-human character. He’s the Dr. Manhattan of the story. As the three-eyed raven, he has taken on the role of being an emotionless database of historical events. He is Big Data personified. Or, if you squint just right, he’s an Artificial Intelligence.

There’s another AI in the world of Game of Thrones. The commonly accepted reading of the Night King is that he represents climate change: an unstoppable force that’s going to dramatically impact human affairs, but everyone is too busy squabbling in their own politics to pay attention to it. I buy that. But there’s another interpretation. The Night King is rogue AI. He’s a paperclip maximiser.

Clearly, a world ruled by an Artificial Intelligence like that would be a nightmare scenario. But we’re also shown that a world ruled purely by human emotion would be just as bad. That would be the tyrannical reign of the mad queen Daenerys. Both extremes are undesirable.

So why is Bran any better? Well, technically, he isn’t ruling alone. He has a board of (very human) advisors. The emotionless logic of a pure AI is kept in check by a council of people. And the extremes of human nature are kept in check by the impartial AI. To put in another way, humanity is augmented by Artificial Intelligence: Man-computer symbiosis.

Whether it’s the game of chess or the game of thrones, a centaur is your best bet.

A minority report on artificial intelligence

Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.

It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.

At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.

Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.

The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.

But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:

It helps not to think of them as human.

To which the response is:

No, they’re so much more than that.

Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.

Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.

Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.

Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.

Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.

When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.

Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…

Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.

At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.

Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.

There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.

The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:

SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.