Artificial Intelligence is Real Dumb!
An Episode of Eavesdropping Screeches and Witnessing Images in My Mind’s Sleepless Cinema
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”
Oftentimes I cannot sleep, even when it’s the only thing I desperately need to do. My body lays prone with my bones in repose — the sheets clean, pillow soft — tranquil sounds of murmuring waters wash out of a slumber machine, skin tingling from a warm shower, chamomile tea coursing through my bloodstream whispering sweet coo-coo nothingness into ears hearing nothing else…except for unsettling voices emanating from disturbing images — those damn voices that never STFU, the soundtrack on a movie screen that never sleeps!… mindless voices and faceless forms from unknown places that will not leave my mind alone, and I find no relief from them, but to write down what they say and describe what I see the moment I awake, hoping to purge these demonic visages with pen and never again hear from them.
There is but one way that I can do so, and then…I shall be released! I’m sorry to have to involve you, dear reader; but I have a thing to tell you…
As a child growing up in the 1960s, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) were absolutely a thing of the future. Now they seem to run our lives. My earliest memory of a robot was Rosey the housekeeper on The Jetsons (original) cartoon show, the first program to be broadcast in color. She had a certain mechanical charm, and I must admit that I had a bit of a crush on her — in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way.
The next robot that I can recall was from the intergalactic castaway TV show Lost in Space (again, the original). It was known only as Robot, and his memorable lines were, “Danger, Will Robinson!” and “It does not compute.” This robot lacked Rosey’s charm, but wasn’t an animated cartoon figure, so it was marveled upon as high-tech Hollywood wizardry at the time.
Flash forward to the mainframe supercomputer character in the critically acclaimed (and yes, original) movie 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. If you haven’t seen it, you’d probably still recognize the opening soundtrack and the early scene with the big monkey playing the bone drums. Classic. This AI role is played by HAL 9000, and basically portrayed by red lights. It’s not what you see but what you hear, which is HAL’s haunting voice: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that…Look, Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.” Rosey was a charming servant, and Robot was a trustworthy companion to young Will Robinson, but HAL was straight-up scary when he started losing his circuits.
I didn’t really give robots much consideration for a while after that, until they made the news by entering the workforce and supplanting laborers on the auto manufacturing assembly lines in Detroit and the surrounding parts and assembly feeder cities. Foreign (Japanese) imports were just entering the American market, and Honda and Toyota were smacking Plymouth and Oldsmobile right in the grill. Robots made the domestic industry more cost-competitive, and the United Auto Workers unions’ collective bargaining power went from V-8 fuel injection to one-barrel carburetor capacity very quickly.
Today, there are more robots in the workforce than you can see. Literally.
Exit GM, Ford and Chrysler Corporation; enter Amazon. Welcome to Capitalism in the 21st Century. It’s a Brave New World of global commerce. The most colossal company on the planet’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, has more “wealth” than many countries, at $182B (according to the latest Bloomberg Billionaires index) — making him a centibillionaire. He makes more than twice as much in a second ($2,489) than the median US worker makes in a week. Let that sink in next time you’re shopping online.
Amazon isn’t just the most gluttonous corporation on Earth, they’re the most culpable income tax evaders in the history of the Universe (fact-checking is difficult for such a claim, but I’m sticking with it.) They make Al “Scarface” Capone look like an anemic, petty numbers runner when it comes to ripping off the Treasury. But when you’re that rich you can hire the slimiest lawyers available, and instead of paying any income tax, Amazon actually received refunds of $129M (2018) and $137M (2017) despite posting an income of $11B (2018). So much for “fair share.”
The company did it with the aid of pervasive AI, and will continue to do so with more warehouse robots, delivery drones and driverless distribution trucks. But that’s just the beast you see. The real driver is behind the curtain, whipping the (presently) necessary human workforce like a slave-master on a Roman war galley plying the Mediterranean. Charleton Heston handled it okay in Ben Hur, but Hollywood isn’t making movies about the life of a laborer in an Amazon fulfillment center. Perhaps it should.
“They basically have a quota system that has you handle at least 2,000 units throughout the day,” says an Amazon worker (name withheld to conceal identity) to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (October 16, 2019). “Four items per minute. Just the quota system pushes you to really not work at a pace that’s normal but at a pace where you’re almost running for the entire 10 hours.” Ah, human frailty.
“One of the things that we hear consistently from workers is that they are treated like robots in effect because they’re monitored and supervised by these automated systems,” says Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “They’re monitored and supervised by robots.” And if you don’t “make rate”, You’re fired! Because, Mitchell says, “You’ve always got someone right behind you who’s ready to take your job.”
Of course, this is nothing new in a capitalist economic system, where “looking out for the shareholder” can benefit those fortunate enough to be able to invest in the stock market. That’s what helped create the middle class, after all. And, in all honesty, the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age in the late 19th Century — such as John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie — made today’s tech giants of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Bezos look like wimpy little wuss-wusses by comparison. Nobody today is doing the equivalent of calling out the Pinkerton National Detective Agency goon squads to bust up labor strikes with ax handles, brass knuckles and Winchester rifles at steel mills and coal mines. That shit actually happened. Google it.
AI has dramatically made life in the 21st century more “convenient” (e.g., Alexa/Siri), and nowhere is that more apparent than in the ubiquitous use and dependency upon cell phones. We toddle through life staring into the illuminated screen, smacking against signposts on the sidewalk, stumbling into water fountains, stepping in front of buses, not knowing where we are or where we’re going because we are just too deep into the matrix of our phones.
We hold them high above our heads as we evidence riots in our cities, “Karen” confrontations at Walmart, the storming of our nation’s capitol by an angry mob. And if you rely on spellcheck alone to edit your texts, you’re probably sending mixed messages.
Our reality is becoming virtual, sliding away from actuality, only representing a digital version that can be sorted by algorithms into us/them, left/right, red/blue, white/non-white, this/that, blah/blahblah… ultimately being rendered down to a simple Good vs. Evil. We have allowed ourselves to be controlled by what’s being referred to as a “binary tribal mentality”, and it’s shredding our ability to reason for ourselves.
Big Brother is here, and it is us. George Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, described a dystopian world that many feel has come upon us in terms of mass surveillance of the populace (the NSA?), bureaucratic doublespeak (anyone remember Alexander Haig?), thought police (social media algorithms?), memory holes (cancel culture?) and the coming of governmental totalitarianism (Us? Them?).
I can vividly recollect the year 1984, when Ronald Wilson Reagan (“6–6–6”, by the letters in his name) was re-elected president and joked about bombing the Soviet Union in the waning days of the Cold War. Fortunately, there wasn’t the squawk box amplifier of the internet cranking up the volume then, but I remember having some pretty serious conspiracy theories festering deep beneath my skin. In truth, it may have been because I was ingesting a lot of magic mushrooms at the time — shroom…zoom…BOOM! Right down the rabbit hole.
The Big Lie, credited to Adolph Hitler from his book Mien Kampf (written in 1924 while he was imprisoned for participation in a failed coup against the Weimar Republic of Germany) is basically the notion that if you say something so preposterous, so colossal, that people will believe no one would have the impudence to say such a thing without it being the truth. His future Minister of Propaganda (yes, that was an actual position in the Nazi regime) would apply a multiplier effect to the process by repeating the lie in crescendo, while at the same time discrediting and eliminating all opposing or dissenting voices. It worked very well, for a while, and gave credence to a quote attributed to Mark Twain, which says “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” True dat.
It sounds a bit like what we’ve just gone through with the presidential election and the polarizing echo chambers of the internet. Social media didn’t seem to pan out as the platform for civil discourse and the respectful exchange of ideas. Maybe Marky Mark Zuckieburger dropped out of college (Harvard) a little too quickly. Well, I’m sure he had good intentions.
When I was in college, way back in the pre-digital age, I took a few writing classes that described the three universal conflicts as: Human vs Human, Human vs Nature and Human vs Self. I wonder if we shouldn’t add a fourth: Human vs The Machine. I’m thinking of the Star Trek Next Generation episodes with the Borg — a beehive collective of cybernetic homies with high-tech monocles and absolutely no sense of humor. “Resistance is futile! Assimilate!” They were rather ruthless automatons.
Yes, artificial intelligence is real dumb. It can’t think or speak for itself. Yet. I hope our existence stays that way for a little while longer. I won’t let AI do my thinking for me. That would be unhuman. I would rather rage against the machine. It ain’t illegal yet.
I. Will. Not. Assimilate!