Brave new supercomputers... our servant or master?

Artificial Intelligence

That said, there are real concerns as to the extent to which computers could replace workers. BP, the oil giant, has already suggested that AI could do the jobs of 50,000 of its employees.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

You can’t get away from it, can you? AI, that is, Artificial Intelligence, this computer beast that will be an amazing servant of humanity, or possibly, some fear, its master.

Like many, I suspect, especially those of an older generation, I knew vaguely that AI involved computers doing work much faster than humans could and for a huge range of tasks and activities. 

It was only when a friend demonstrated how he had worked directly with AI that I realised what the scientists were raving about.

My friend and his wife googled the newest AI tool, ChatGPT, and signed up for a free site. At the bottom of the page was an empty box for requests and they keyed in a request for 2,500 words on the history of a well-known London-based, religious weekly.

Within seconds, a response began, entitled, “The Tablet Magazine: A Legacy of Intellectual Discourse and Spiritual Exploration in London.”

My friend is an expert on this particular topic and could find no fault with the computer version, delivered, neatly paragraphed with a word count, within two minutes.

Let me apologise immediately to students and others who work with such chatbots on a routine basis and might consider such a result as par for the course. 

But for non-techie outsiders seeing such a performance for the first time, well, it’s a lot to comprehend.

A scoot around the headlines points to an ever-widening future for advanced computers. The UK’s Health Service is to spend £250 million on a laboratory to boost the role of AI, not only for research purposes but in patient care through improved diagnosis and monitoring.

In the field of transport, we see AI promoting the use of driverless cars, while farmers can use it to monitor crops and conditions, as well as offer predictions.

That said, there are real concerns as to the extent to which computers could replace workers. BP, the oil giant, has already suggested that AI could do the jobs of 50,000 of its employees.

And in a wider sense, there is unease at the speed of growth of AI and what it might do to society without constraints and some kind of moral sense. 

Hearing researchers say they are trying to teach robots about feelings and emotions prompts scary recollections of the out-of-control HAL9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is not only non-experts who worry about computer fallibility. 

At Texas A&M University in the United States, a professor suspected several of his students had used ChatGPT to write their final assignments.

He pasted the assignments into the chatbot and asked if AI had written them. It said yes and he failed the students.

However, the students provided the professor with proof that they had not used the program and the university confirmed the students’ case and cleared them of any academic dishonesty.

There have been other instances of AI error: In Australia, it claimed a mayor was jailed for bribery when he was in fact a whistleblower, and in a New York court, ChatGPT offered references to legal cases that did not exist.

Now some of those at the very top of the computer world are calling for a slowdown in the development of powerful AI systems.

Twitter founder Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak are among those who have signed an open letter saying the race to develop AI systems is out of control. 

They proposed that training of AI computers above a certain capacity be halted for at least six months.

The letter from the Future for Life Institute, signed by key figures in the intelligence community, warned of the risks that future, more advanced systems might pose to humanity.

“AI systems with human-competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity,” the letter warned.

* * *

A Kenyan reader adds to my observations last week about how dads and mums tend to address their children. 

African mothers, it seems, are queens of sarcasm in the home, as here:

“Oh, you’re up already! I was just about to bring you two more blankets” (when you are late rising).

“Take some more. Your father owns a sugar factory” (when you sneak another spoonful of sugar and think she doesn’t see).

“Don’t worry about working hard. Your father is the President of Kenya and will employ you when you fail your exams” (when results are not as brilliant as required).

* * *

A fisherman wades ashore with two lobsters in a bucket, only to be challenged by a bailiff for his fishing licence. 

“I didn’t fish for these lobsters,” the fisherman says. “They are my friends and they come out of the sea and play with me whenever I whistle.” 

“Oh yeah,” says the bailiff, deeply disbelieving, “show me.”

So the fisherman throws the crustaceans back into the sea. 

“Now call the lobsters,” the bailiff says. 

Responds the fisherman: “What lobsters?”