A Piece of Cake – Author’s Note

I thought I would put an author’s note in the middle of this story that is, needless to say, fiction. The characters do not exist. There is nowhere in Norfolk called Bingham on Bure. However, the capacities that Buster demonstrates are not fictional. Nearly everything he can do is already possible or is being actively researched. What could be deemed fictional is the speed with which Buster performs his tasks. I would prefer the term “future reality.”

I first heard of the internet in 1992. Someone mentioned a hyper-text transfer protocol in 1995. The world wide web was billed as the next big thing throughout 1996. One computing expert invited to speak on Radio 4 said “There’s no point having all that information on the internet. What use is a library if all the books are scattered around on the floor?” Somebody then showed me a clever device on his computer called a “search engine!” If, in 1996, I had been shown a smartphone from 2022, I would have taken it as proof that aliens had landed.

I frequently drive down a suburban road just on or just over the speed limit. There is an electronic display that tells me what my speed is; information that is readily available to me if I look down at my dashboard. However, the display also shows a sad emoji when I drive too fast (45 km/h – ☹️) and a smiley emoji when I reduce my speed to below the speed limit (39 km/h – 🙂.) It is proven that these emojis constitute an extremely effective speed reduction measure. Think about it! A machine detects my speed. It makes a judgement of whether my behaviour is legal or not. It then transmits this information to me in what I perceive as positive or negative emotions even though I don’t know whose emotions the emojis represent. My behaviour changes for the better. There is no human in the loop. Consider then what happens if the displays are simultaneously equipped with number-plate recognition technology. Robin! Too fast! 😡. Then what if all the displays are linked in a network? Robin! Too fast again! We do not like you! 😡😡😡. Is this not a demonstration of artificial emotional intelligence?

In many other domains, our behaviour influences how artificial intelligence performs. Every credit card transaction, every post, like or share on social media and every phone call or text message sets up a series of data points “out there.” The resulting vast datasets are mined by programmes that can, for example, create those irritating on-line ads supposedly adapted to our particular lifestyle or interests. The web is so vast now that it can, supposedly, behave like a human brain. Whether or not you agree with this, it is undeniable that what emerges on the web, especially on social media, has a profound impact on our lives; but what emerges is determined by what we put into it.

This story then is about our developing relationship with artificial intelligence. This relationship is not the exclusive domain of programmers and tech companies. How it develops, how it impacts our lives and what laws are applied must be determined by choices that we as a society make. We have to choose wisely.

The rest of this story might even help you with those choices. If not, I hope at least you’ll enjoy Buster’s struggle with humour. The jokes get worse. By the way, Triggersville, Oklahoma does not exist. I have seen, on a rusting Dodge pick-up, the pro-gun bumper stickers I describe. Melbourne, Australia does exist but, surprisingly, an Australian gossip magazine called ‘The Gozzeroo’ does not. The UK has plans to renew the Trident nuclear weapons programme.

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