Jim Furlong: Fish n’ Chips & The Future

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the future. If my ‘best before date’ was different perhaps I would because there are dark clouds on our horizon. Threats to our ravaged environment are obvious, as are political and social threats in a world rapidly dividing into an ‘us and them’ situation. 

Picking up speed

In recent days I have come to understand that one of the greatest threats to civilization is from our own machines. Hovering over us is the spectre of ‘artificial intelligence [AI].’ It is coming down upon us in a way we don’t even comprehend and it is like a train that is picking up speed on the tracks. Stephen Hawking warned us that “every aspect of our lives will be transformed by artificial intelligence [AI]” and it could be “the biggest event in the history of our civilization.”

Even today our society increasingly is subject to manipulation by the wonders of computer algorithms. They are effective in many levels of society particularly in marketing and in predicting our behaviour. Algorithms know us well. They know who we are and what we like and dislike and are good at predicting what we think. That is a little disquieting in that essentially they operate in an autonomous way. Once they are started …they are started. They are a social force in politics already. Consider attempts to control public opinion in the last American presidential election.

Computer programs with a mind of their own run the world’s stock markets where some events in trading aren’t generated by human intervention but rather by computer interpretations. 

Consider as well military applications and the possibility that somewhere in the future deployment and activation of weapons will be controlled by a series of computer programs. There won’t be a finger on the trigger. For people of my generation we remember well the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the computer (HAL 9000) refused to allow astronaut Dave to switch it off. “I’m sorry Dave, I am afraid I can’t do that.”

Glimpse into the future

Now we are at the door of AI and it is open. The issues of regulation, legal implications, financial implications and all the rest lie just up around the next bend.

Let me tell you a quick story. Last year I was in a small community in Trinity Bay to attend a funeral. That was fine but the next day I received an online advertisement from a restaurant in that town promising the best fish and chips in the bay. I hadn’t sent an e-mail to anyone while I was there. I hadn’t received any. How were these things possible?

The answer is that we sought directions from my smart phone. That apparently was enough. The fish and chip shop or at least a computer program was seeking me out and trying to sell me something and it wasn’t by way of any direct human decision. It had become HAL. It was a tiny little glimpse into the future and I didn’t like it much.

NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]

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