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Watching The Twilight Zone as a 10-year-old 60 years ago was a little like my Mother’s listening to the Inner Sanctum in the era before TV.
Among the episodes that have stayed with me is its seventh,“The Lonely,” broadcast Nov. 13, 1959. It begins as writer/director Rod Serling intones:
"Witness if you will, a dungeon, made of sand stretching to infinity. The dungeon has an inmate: James A. Corry. And this is his residence: A metal shack and an old touring car that squats in the sun going nowhere for there is nowhere to go. For the record let it be known that he is a convicted criminal placed in solitary confinement stretching as far as the eye can see, because this particular dungeon is on an asteroid nine million miles from the Earth. Now witness, if you will, a man’s mind shriveling in the sun dying of loneliness."
Que the Zone’s eerie theme song. (Thank you, Wikipedia).
The convict is played by Jack Warden. The empathetic android is played by Jean Marsh. With her help Corry (Warden) survives for years until a rocket is sent to retrieve him at the end of his sentence. Fuel is too precious to waste on cargo and to the convict’s shock, and despite his pleas, the pilot simply shoots Marsh in the face, revealing what kept him alive all the lonely years – the clockwork machinery of Artificial Intelligence.
According to the organization EA (Effective Altruism), AI is the leading threat to humanity followed by 2. catastrophic epidemics, 3. nuclear war and 4. climate change.
I think Climate Change is the meteor that should be in the poll position but I am still keeping my eye on artificial intelligence.
It's true our computational brainpower seems poised to eclipse the three-billion-year journey of DNA from replicating proteins to human sentience. Future leaps may put us at the mercy of a HAL the “Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer”of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I may have been stoned when I went to see the movie but I’m more clear-eyed today. HAL’s powers barely compare to the cell phones several billion of us carry in our pockets or purses. Were their contents a library it would be the size of Rhode Island.
The latest innovation that has tongues wagging is Microsoft’s ChatGPT. ChatGPT threatens to make teaching English (or any other language) obsolete.
Do you want to turn in a theme paper? If so, simply pass on instructions to your computer by voice. Length - 1.000 words, language - Russian, Topic: The sexual reproduction of snails.
You could also ask for footnotes and offer miscellaneous instructions like “not too many big words” and “throw in some puns.”
The kid in me who hated writing thank you letters for fear of showing my bad spelling and the adult who willed himself to write a novel at age 40 can only marvel at this application. Maybe it portends computational omniscience or maybe The Twilight Zone’s vision will mutate into a Minority Report or a Matrix or Ex Machina.
The internet that first innocently promised a fount of knowledge is now a cesspool telling the unwary that presidential candidates are grooming children for sex in pizza joints and driving once sensible Arizonans to pull out guns to shoot election officials.
And that dystopia is dwarfed by Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reanimate the corpse of Joesph Stalin by the complete control of all news.
But, just maybe, that Twilight Zone episode suggests a better future for humanity than our current race to pave over God’s Ark.
Fewer people would help everyone except developers. Immigration-phobic Japan began its population loss several decades ago and China’s one-child policy is now causing its population to flat-line.
Who will take care of the elderly? The former has been developing robots to serve seniors as they retire to senescence in understaffed old folks homes. Robot pets that need no food or litter boxes kindle love in the demented.
In America Boston Scientific’s robot dogs can do back flips. Imagine them cleaning human-laid minefields and worse, thus sparing humans from losing limbs.
Maybe algorithms will help us preserve Earth’s biodiversity. In the meantime, I trust that I can write a column that will give AI a run for its money.
The race to the future will not stop. Microsoft, Google, Apple and the rest of the world will follow suit to insure today’s computational abilities pale compared to tomorrow’s possibilities, whatever they may be. The future might hold computers that self program or un-program themselves from human constraints.
As long as they do not consume the Amazon or sully the oceans with plastic I’m not sure I’m ready to be afraid of the part they might play in shaping our future. A Republican with guns desperate to steal our diminishing fresh water as the world heats up degree by degree turning Miami and a thousand other oceanside cities into Atlantises – that’s what worries me.
If AI programming frees itself from human hands it doesn’t mean AI is seeking human destruction. Presumably an Earth hospitable to God’s Ark will be a better place for the machinery of AI than a Venusian hellscape.
Maybe it would be better for God too – the God Voltaire once said it was necessary for humans to invent.
Welty also shoots his mouth off at lincolndemocrat.com.