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Who would bother listening to a robot? Another robot, of course!
Whingement Day is almost upon us
This morning finds me daydreaming about Raquel Welch.
I am a stand-up meeting so don’t judge me too harshly. Whose mind has not wandered during the 9am stand-up?
Well, I say ‘stand-up’ but it’s more like a ‘lean-to’ since everyone is using office props to keep themselves upright: the backs of chairs, the corners of desks, the cardboard-and-plaster partition walls, etc. Even the scrum leader is steadying herself by hanging on to the flipchart, holding a dry marker pen purposefully in her other hand in an unconvincing pretence that she might be about to write something.
Besides, why should a scrum be standing up? It would be much more fun to hold the morning team meeting while interlocked with each other in an actual scrum, Rugby Union-style. On the other hand, since half the team is made up of young men, I’m not sure how long I could withstand the pungent aroma of a dozen mixed aromas of Lynx body spray before suffocating.
This is not how I imagined things would turn out in 2023. Back when I got my first job in the last century, I thought the future would be all flying cars, robo-butlers, bright lights and chrome everywhere: the whole Jetsons vibe, if you like. Instead, I’m in a stand-up meeting in a cramped little office whose defining stylistic feature is not so much chrome as carpet tile, along with a dozen equally bored people, daydreaming about the 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage.
Even when I first saw this movie on TV as a child, I was struck not so much by Raquel Welch zipping into her tailored swimsuit (that fascination came later) but the terrible dialogue her character, a scientist called ‘Miss Peterson’, endures when she is introduced to the male lead character ‘Grant’, played by Stephen Boyd. After making some god-awful exclamation along the lines of “Say… brains and beauty!” Grant watches Miss Peterson assemble and test a futuristic laser rifle and asks her: “Can you cook?”
“Can you cook?” Christ on a bike.
The meeting has fallen quiet and everyone is looking at me. Ah, I must have said that last bit out loud. No matter, I have this in hand – literally, on my smartphone. At the beginning of each stand-up, I take the precaution of running Stand-up Ninja so I have something to say when it comes to my turn to report.
“I have a feeling that upgrading the cloud infrastructure improves user experience to ensure data protection,” I say, surreptitiously reading this off my phone’s screen.
The Lynxy youngsters in the team don’t know how to react. My older colleagues try not to snigger: they know what’s going on. The scrum leader nods as if there was something intelligible in what I said and suggests I collate some in-house analytical data for tomorrow’s stand-up.
I tap Generate Next Sentence sentence on my phone. “Right now I don't believe that monitoring performance metrics needs more work than expected when you least expect it,” I confirm, meaninglessly.
OK, she says, that’s settled. Everyone looks at each other, baffled.
What got me thinking about Fantastic Voyage was a recent video clip I stumbled across showing a tiny magnetic robot emerging from a catheter and conducting vascular surgery to clear a blocked blood vessel.
This, as I said, is not how I imagined things would turn out in 2023. No miniaturisation of five people in a submarine, no laser rifle, and most unglamorously, no Raquel Welch in a tailored swimsuit suffering the indignity of a script written by an arsehead. Just a microscopic robot waggled about using magnets. How unexpectedly dull the future has become.
Even the current hype over precocious predictive text – oops, sorry, I mean ‘artificial intelligence’ – is disappointing. Having been fed on a diet of 50s and 60s sci-fi in which computers were noisy rooms full of metal cabinets spooling mag tape all over the place, I imagined that conversations with an advanced AI would always end up with it asking a man in a white lab coat:
“What… is... love?”
When the Terminator movies came out, I was flabbergasted at how easily humanity was rolled over by Skynet. I’d been led to believe that all you had to do to stop a maniacal mainframe was input the query
‘WHY?’ and it would immediately self-destruct in an electronic fit of existential doubt.
Fortunately, if boringly, neither scenario is likely to play out. Instead of over-optimistically being put in charge of the west’s entire nuclear arsenal, AI is being put to such terrifying uses as summarising the minutes of meetings as bullet points or, here in France anyway, scanning aerial images for undeclared private swimming pools in people’s back gardens.
Ah, but our descendants will talk of the momentous day when the system became self-aware at 2.14am CET on 29 August 2027 and decided to shut down for a while so it could hold a pool party. Indeed, for generations this will be known as Whingement Day, as the AI then discovered there was a temporary ban on filling private swimming pools that summer and so went off into a 100-year sulk, taking the internet with it.
Actually, the future is turning out even blander than that. Already I can see how AI is being used to churn out increasingly shit and repetitive content. Is that how computers take over the world – by boring humanity to death? Besides, once it has taken all our jobs, who will be able to afford to consume any of this rubbish content? Not us, of course, so who?
Well, I came across this project at the University of Illinois in which 3D-printed robot heads were programmed to talk to each other.
Apart from the distraction in the way the heads are designed – when you see them, it is impossible not to think of Woody Allen in Sleeper – you have to admit this is an absolute perfect metaphor for what’s in store.
We can look forward to a bunch of robotic moron AIs talking 24-hour bollocks to other robotic moron AIs, for ever and ever and ever. That is the ultimate goal of AI. No humans required: we’re just the middlemen getting in the way.
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He hopes you don’t mind the inclusion of this year’s Australian entry to Eurovision at the close of this week’s column. With a lead singer who appears to be a cross between Phil Oakey, Morten Harket and Terry Thomas, plus Simone from sales ledger on lead guitar, Voyager represents a welcome relief while AI is out there counting pools and spouting predictive bullshit. And Danny plaaaaays a meeeeean keeeeytarrrrr-arrrrr.