Alexa — please tell me the most important event of 2019

Published 01.01.2020 08:00
Updated 01.01.2020 20:16

Some say the advent of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has taken the fun out of playing or watching football as it is no longer the linesmen or the referee who is in charge but, figuratively speaking, everything is based on remote control. Now picture this: One day in the near future, VAR's developers drop the human factor altogether and convert reviewers into wired-up machines which automatically and irrevocably decide whether it was a penalty or not – a very scary thought for sure.

In this context, please allow for a brief detour before we reapproach the topic for this article: As 2019 becomes 2020, it makes good commentator's sense to take a deep breath and start to reflect on what has made for headlines in the past 365 days. Yet, it is impossible to present more than a few issues of global concern in one short piece, so one is inclined to venture out in search of the bigger picture.

This, in turn, allows for a certain and, at times, very healthy distancing from current affairs and day-to-day politics either at home or abroad. We want to find out whether or not there was something extraordinary, something unusual, something either so obvious or so hidden that it would impact our lives not just for 24 hours or a week but for years and decades to come.

According to your friendly contributor's modest insight, one noteworthy development was the seemingly universal acceptance of the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) is a positive development that will greatly benefit mankind and make our existence so much better, easier and more enjoyable. At stake and in a nutshell: over the past 12 months, researchers managed to add a surprisingly convincing human touch to what was previously known as "the machine." And, they certainly continue to do so by basically aiming for machines or computers to act and react like humans.

As this is the year-end column, let us insert just a small dose of satire before we move on to more threatening scenarios. Imagine you are now writing your very own opinion page story. For one reason or another, you type too fast or press your keyboard with too much force and, all of a sudden, a soft voice appears as if out of nowhere and gently tells you, "Please do not press so hard and fast, it hurts me."

Or, while revisiting "Space Odyssey," we will remember HAL 9000, the almighty onboard spacecraft computer that claims it is faultless, despite the clear knowledge that it was programmed to conceal vital information from its own crew. What would be your reaction if your home-based HAL 9000 2.0, without asking, switches off your television set shortly after 10 p.m. and tells you "it is time to go to bed"?

Artificial equals superficial

Unless scientists come up with ideas to totally mirror our personalities and reformat everything we ever did, wanted and knew into a kind of microchip that included our feelings and emotions, a machine, no matter how cleverly designed, will always be nothing more and nothing less than a nonhuman thing. And if we are honest – who would want this former scenario ever to materialize in earnest?

Hence we started interacting with imperfect opposite numbers, allowing them to retell our favorite songs and to remind us of our grocery store shopping list. Yet, they only can achieve this because we programmed them beforehand to do so.

Alexa, for example, would not know why we want to listen to that particular tune from playlist 20 right now or what our emotions are at a particular point of the day; she only knows that song number 14 on playlist 20 is by The Beatles.

Departing from these small-scale examples and getting closer to the real dilemma is to ask: do we humans really want to stay human or do we accept that, except for reproductive purposes, we should assign computers our daily chores and tasks, such as teaching, writing, manufacturing, gardening and cooking?

Driverless cars do not need AI

We use driverless airport shuttle trains without the slightest hesitation. We will depart that same airport and take to the skies in the clear knowledge that for most of the flight, we shall be transported in auto-pilot mode. Our young adult children are looking forward to using automated reverse parking options in their brand new automobiles. But this has nothing to do with the overhyped debate regarding AI; this is simply state-of-the-art technology probably making our lives safer and more convenient.

What struck me as vital last year, however, is that we all happily give in to some scientists' hunger and appetite for reaching the next level. That is how to convert what were machines and computers into something almost resembling us humans, if not by size or outlook but by functionality.

Mankind is meant to stay as we are – human beings. Our nations are run by people and, thankfully, not by machines. Our youngsters are taught by real-life people and not by machines either. We go to restaurants where living staff, not robots, tend to our needs. This list goes on and on.

The most threatening scenario hinted at above is when, one day, machines are empowered and enabled to take away crucial policymaking decisions, including the one of going to war or not, from elected officeholders. Granted, this is a scenario still too far in the future to be seriously considered. Yet, is foresight analysis not a typical human-inspired technique to try and predict what might happen to us in the near or medium-term future? And, if we do not approve of the outcome, to refrain from attempting it?

How could any computer ever tell us what should happen in the future unless that machine knows our life's destiny and our ambitions, wishes, desires and plans? Should that day come, we as mankind will be no more.

Closing words

While penning this article, a thought briefly crossed my mind to ask Alexa about topical suggestions to test her embedded AI and see where we really stand in this matter. Luckily, and only a few seconds later, this short-sighted idea was laid to rest for good. Why luckily? Alexa may remember my favorite song by The Beatles because I told her, but she is not into politics or international relations. And that is the way it is supposed to be.

* Political analyst, journalist based in London

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