March 23, 2023
INTELLIGENCE: Yesterday, I ascended the lower slopes of the Umbrian mountains that rise behind our village to join 80 year old Aldo and his 84 year old brother, Tonino, to clear the brush under the rows of olive trees they’d just pruned. Gathering the fallen branches and severed suckers is hard work, so the 74 year old, citified body that I own, the one that sat in fat repose much of the winter, struggled to do its bit.
Aldo and Tonino’s father, and several generations of grandfathers before them, did the same work with different tools, but the difference between, say, the lopping blades used in earlier times and the mechanical pruners that Aldo and Tonino use nowadays are strictly evolutionary. Ditto the differences between the olive presses used up until recently and the centrifuges that spin the juice out of the fruit that are used now.
I think we can count on the fact that ChatGPT and BARD are not subjects that enter the minds of Aldo and Tonino let alone engender their worry and concern. They can make their way around electro-mechanical farm equipment with stupendous facility, but for them digital technology exists in a realm of magic. The smartphones in their hands serve practical purposes, and they would scoff if I were to say look again: these things are miniature “wardrobes” through which you can enter the Narnia-esque landscape of the digerati.
And scoff too if I were to tell them that we – all of us – are perched on a social, cultural and economic inflection point as profound as those that occurred with the advent of the wheel, the keeled, ruddered and wind-driven boat, glass lenses, steam powered engines, gunpowder, antibiotics, internal combustion engines, nuclear fission, and the computer itself. More profound in fact.
ChatGPT, invested in and seized upon by Microsoft, and BARD, developed by Google, will answer your questions. You can prompt them to compose stuff out of words, perform calculations, write computer code, analyze data, wrangle with hypotheses, and suss out solutions to myriad and manifold problems in any field of human endeavour. They will mine untold tetrabytes of information and knowledge to do so and as they do they will add tetrabytes more to the oceanic archives which they are designed to harness. The feed on data from one end and shit data at the other.
These human built machines will engage our conscious minds and in doing that give us a sense of control and agency. But, they will also penetrate the shadowy deeps of our unconscious. Not long from now they will transcend their code-driven logic because they will learn what they need to know to become sentient. By such “magic”, ChatGPT and BARD and an army of their AI siblings, each purpose-built for specialized assignments, will eventually displace us. Make humans redundant.
Many commentators, more knowledgeable than I, will tell you that the opposite is true, but all agree that we are teetering on a life altering inflection point now, and that we will, all of us, tumble headlong, as we always have, into the inescapable, unavoidable future, the one that our collective intellectual and imaginative powers have created. And so, if the dolorous poet, TS Eliot, were here to conjure a suitable aphorism to nail the moment it might be “in our creation is our destruction”.
Those of us of a certain age will not be here to bear witness, and knowing that and being wise to our powerlessness in matters great, we will instead enjoy the seasons we have left. This new spring, for instance, in whose breezes we are content to bend our bodies to the same work done by our forefathers. We are, I think, the last of our breed.
* * *
Dooney’s posts passages from Vian Andrews’ journal of life in the Umbrian countryside, “Scribbles from Italy,” (2021 to the present) every two weeks, usually in roughly chronological order. But to give readers an idea of what Andrews is currently thinking about, here’s his entry from yesterday on the big artificial intelligence debate.
Scribbles from Italy is a series of articles from Vian Andrews in which he reflects on his experiences of life in his new home in the Umbrian countryside.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.