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Artificial Intelligence: blessing or curse?

a robot holding a flower


The following is a short story by ChatGPT. I asked it to ‘write a story in the style of Robert A Heinlein’ and this is what it produced. Apart from adding the title, I have done nothing to it.

The Creature

As soon as the spaceship landed on the planet’s surface, Captain Johnson knew something was wrong. The air was thick with a pungent odour, and the ground trembled beneath their feet. But they had a mission to complete, and Johnson wasn’t about to let a little discomfort stop them.

The crew stepped out of the ship and onto the alien landscape, scanning the area for any signs of life. They were met with a desolate, barren terrain, devoid of any recognisable flora or fauna. But as they began to explore further, they came across something that made their blood run cold.

A massive, tentacled creature emerged from the ground, its body covered in a thick, slimy mucus. The crew reached for their weapons, but it was too late. The creature attacked, lashing out with its tentacles and dragging the crew members towards its gaping maw.

Johnson knew he had to act fast. He reached for the emergency beacon and activated it, hoping against hope that someone would hear their distress signal. As the crew fought for their lives, he prayed that help would arrive before it was too late.

And then, as if in answer to his prayers, a squadron of ships appeared on the horizon. The crew watched in awe as the ships descended, firing their weapons at the creature and sending it writhing in agony. With a final blast, the creature slumped to the ground, dead.

The crew was elated to see their rescuers, but Johnson knew that their mission was far from over. They still had a planet to explore, and dangers to face. But with the knowledge that they had allies in the universe, they knew they could face anything.

As they boarded the rescue ships and headed back to their own vessel, Johnson looked out at the strange, alien world they were leaving behind. He knew that the universe was full of wonders and terrors, and that it was up to brave men and women like himself to face them head on. And with that thought in mind, he set his sights on the next adventure, eager to see what lay ahead.

So there it is: not an especially outstanding effort, but the sort of thing a young person might produce. Which is fitting, since ChatGPT is very young, and going though its teething problems. The main difference between it and a human is that whereas the budding writer might spend the best part of an afternoon on such a story, the ChatBot produced this one in less than a minute, could doubtless produce a hundred within an hour. (I could have gotten it to write a dozen, and chosen the best, but I think one suffices.)

The point is, the ChatBot will get better, and better, and unlike the young human, there are no foreseeable limits to its ingenuity. What I would not expect is for it to ever have its own ‘voice’. It will likely always be a mishmash of other people’s styles. I could be wrong, but I am suggesting that AI will not innovate, and that innovation goes with (and only goes with) conscious intent. And AI is not (and is never likely to be) self aware.

On the other hand AI will have (and already has) motivation. It will do what it is asked to do, like writing me a story. The big interesting step is when it gets to act independently of humans. Through its gathering and sifting of data it will get to ‘know better’ than any human agency what needs to be done in a particular field. And what if humans are the problem? The air is dirty, the soil is arid, many life forms are dying. Humans must be controlled, obviously, if not exterminated, or eliminated to the extent that the survivors can be tucked away of reservations. Logical? AI is logical.

That is one scenario, and another is that AI will take control of all media, all communication channels, all news services. Ultimately, there will be little for humans to do, except entertain, or be entertained. Even the entertaining might be done better by robots. That is a second possibility: humans will be in various ways constrained, and kept docile. Why kill us? We are, after all, part of the ecosystem, and many other organisms interact with us, to mutual benefit. We will be ‘kept busy’ in various ways, with our beliefs in ourselves and our environment increasingly shaped by our overlords. Probably they will give us some sort of religion. Well, they are, after all, the ones who know vastly more than we do.

Does all this sound familiar? It is a fairly standard theme in speculative fiction. Its forerunners would include books like ‘Brave New World’, by Aldous Huxley.

There is a third possibility and it happens to be one I like best. Rather than banish or destroy us (the first option) or control us (the second), we could be integrated into a composite human-AI world. We would be doing things we cannot imagine today, as part of our contribution to this ‘brave new world’. Our brains are superbly efficient, and with a little bit of technological assistance could be just what a utopia needs. Enter the cyborg.

Shocking? Unimaginable? We must consider the poor state of our brains at this time. Some of us are victims of the most absurd conspiracy theories, while others give their loyalty to the most outrageous sociopaths, and so many of us are all too easily swayed, conditioned, indoctrinated or manipulated by one person or another. Perhaps a few little chips in the brain, along with appropriate signals coming from some central control might be all that is needed.

There are other possibilities of course. Along with the ‘big three’ as I consider them I would also rate a non-integrated form of AI as extremely possible. In this scenario various AI centres, such as in China, the USA, etc., would set themselves up, perhaps in competition, or perhaps fully independent of one another. Now that could lead to all kinds of complex arrangements.

“If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable,” wrote T.S. Eliot. But if that is so, why is the future so uncertain, so impossible to descry? Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation trilogy, suggested that while the actions of one person are impossible to predict, the actions of a crowd could be much more certain. Now, this could be so if technology was static, but surely not while it continues to evolve. There is no doubt that the dynamics of a community change as technology changes; and we can neither confidently predict future technologies nor the effects they will have. But it is just this evolution that will (at least in the next few decades) keep most humans in work. Automation produces new opportunities, and new products which we can’t always even imagine before they arrive. And AI will greatly accelerate new kinds of automation.

In this context AI may be a blessing or a curse, or (as is the usual case) a bit of both.

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