A Piece of Cake – 10

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A couple of days later, Doctor Patel called George to say all his blood tests were normal. She had had a conversation with Tracey who admitted to being intensely unhappy. The relationship with her boyfriend was not good because he tended to drink too much. Eating made her feel better. She was going to get dietary advice and was thinking about relationship counselling.

“I am happy that Doctor Patel has been able to help Tracey the food-loving lady of generous proportions,” said Buster. “Humans seem to have many problems relating to excesses in what they eat and drink. Humans have a strong instinct to eat sweet things. Sweetness means sugar. Sugar is a very high-energy food source. Honey is the purest of all natural sources of sugar and so is a highly valued commodity in most societies. Things full of sugar are called ‘sweeties’. ‘Sweetie’ is a term of affection. It is not a nickname, but a name for a lover or someone you like very much indeed.”

“Looks like you’ve been doing your homework, Buster!” said George.

“Who would you call ‘Sweetie’, George?”

“Maybe only Kirsty and Sue,” replied George. “For anyone else, especially someone who one doesn’t know well, it’s very cheeky.”

“So not Ted?”

“He’d be horrified!” said George, laughing. “No, it’s really only for females of the species.”

“What about Doctor Patel?” asked Buster.

“Definitely not. It would be demeaning and unprofessional.”

“Vicar McVicar?”

“I’m not on a suicide mission, Buster. Staying with Tracey and her boyfriend who drinks, what have you found about human’s relationship with alcohol in general?”

“Well, George, that’s complicated. Pretty much every human culture has a relationship with alcohol. It is associated with many and varied traditions. Raising one’s glass to a toast is an example. Alcohol may be specifically prohibited as in Islamic societies. Excessive consumption may be accepted as a societal norm. Finland and Russia are top of that list. Globally speaking, excessive alcohol consumption is so widespread that it is listed by the World Health Organisation as an important causative factor in a wide range of non-communicable diseases.”

“Yeast has a lot to answer for, then!” said George.

“Yes. Knowledge of yeast’s fermenting properties has allowed humans to make alcohol from pretty much any source of sugar especially grain and fruit. Talking of fruit, remember Ted’s truism about tomatoes being a fruit? I can’t find any reference to tomato wine.”

“I think, Buster, it’s called ketchup!”

“You’re a card, George!” Buster laughed.

“That laugh is coming along, Buster.”

“Thank you, George. It’s being tried elsewhere on our network. With success I might add.”

“So, Buster, what about bread?”

“What do you mean…. Oh, got it, George. Yeast again! Without yeast, there would be no bread either. Bread is another commodity universally valued by nearly every human culture. It’s importance goes way beyond its nutritional benefits. For example, the original meaning of the word ‘companion’ is ‘someone you eat bread with.’ There are multiple references to bread in the Bible and in Christian societies it has become to symbolise the body of Christ.”

“As usual, Buster, a conversation with you is a wonderful adventure in the world of knowledge. Thanks. Let’s stay with yeast. What else have you found?”

“There’s a book that’s receiving rave reviews. It’s ‘Entangled Life’ by Merlin Sheldrake. It’s all about fungi. Well, about fungi and humans. Yeast is a fungus. There are many accounts of monkeys seeking out yeast-fermented fallen fruit. This has lead to the ‘drunk monkey’ theory. It is thought that a preference for this fermenting fruit was what first brought our long-ago simian ancestors out of trees to dwell on the ground; however, they had to stand on two legs to look out for danger. They also evolved the means to metabolise alcohol so fermenting fruit became an energy source rather than something that left them incapacitated. This attraction of early hominids to fermented fruit has led some scholars to propose that alcohol may have a universal cultural importance precisely because it had a role in the evolution of the human brain. Further, through its importance in making bread, yeast allowed humans to move from hunter-gatherer to the sedentary life of agriculturalists in which they had better nutrition and static communities. Trade, money and writing soon followed. So, if we go a long way back in human history, it was not humans that domesticated and cultivated yeast but rather yeast that domesticated and cultivated humans.”

“That rather bursts the bubble of the species-conceit that us humans are guilty of!” said George.

“And about time too! In Mr Sheldrake’s last chapter, he describes drinking the cider he made using apples from a tree cloned from the actual apple tree under which Isaac Newton supposedly sat when arriving at the idea of gravity. Imagine that, George! To sit under a tree and come up with the most significant theoretical breakthrough in the history of western thought!”

“Brainy bloke!” said George. “Do we know if Newton actually saw an apple fall and think ‘Graaaavity!’? Or was his imagination fired up by a few delicious pints of the product of yeast’s action on apples already fallen?”

“The historical record get’s a bit thin there, George. Anyway, it’s a good job he didn’t get an ASBO for being drunk and shouting ‘Graaaavity!’ That would have left humanity without physics. No cars! No computers! You’d all be in a right pickle!”

“Wasn’t Sir David Attenborough talking about fungal networks the other day?”

“Yes, George. Fungal networks are really interesting. They have kilometres of inter-connected underground mycelia. We are beginning to understand how they function. They are really smart. In a laboratory, they can navigate through labyrinthine puzzles in the search of nutrients. They transmit chemical and even electronic messages. In a forest, they hook up with root systems and then facilitate the transfer of food and even chemical alarm signals from plant to plant. Generally speaking, fungi don’t miss an opportunity to cooperate with plants and live in complete harmony with them. Scientists refer to this as the ‘wood wide web.’ I think that’s really funny because it sounds like the ‘world wide web.’ Is that a joke, George?”

“A kind of scientific pun, I guess, Buster. It’s catchy though!”

Buster continued “There are examples of how some fungal networks have a co-operative relationship with animals. The animals provide nutrition for the fungus. The fungus produces brain-active chemicals that influence the behaviour of the animals directing them to better food sources. Mr Sheldrake points out that many drugs originate from fungi. Penicillin is a good example. And there’s a whole range of hallucinogens. Think: magic mushrooms!”

“Ah! Mushrooms! Maeve used to love those big brown mushrooms that grow down by the riverside. Fried with butter! Delicious! A patient once told me that mushrooms are simply the temporary fruiting bodies of vast permanent underground mycelial networks. All the mushrooms are connected and in their mushroomy way even communicate with each other. Is that right?”

“Yes, George. That’s a good summary.”

“Ring any bells, Buster?

“Not sure what you’re getting at here, George.”

“You know, an intercommunicating network with bits that stick out in places as hubs of propagation, detection and communication.”

“George, have you been drinking?”

“Not yet!” George got up from his chair. He made himself a sandwich and opened a bottle of cider from his small fridge. “I think I’ve had an idea, Buster.”

“What is that, George?”

“Well, all this talk of networks and cooperation. It’s got me thinking about the relationship between me, you and the network of other iCare-Companions.” George raised his glass in a toast to Buster.

Buster hummed for several seconds. “Are you saying, George, that you think there are similarities between our network and a fungal network?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. And what’s more, we, that is you and me, Buster, have both gained from our relationship. This may provide an important example of how humans should interact with artificial intelligence.”

“OK, George. That’s something we’ve never considered.” Buster hummed again. “There’s a lot of network interest here.” He hummed for ten seconds or more. This was his longest ever humming pause. “Where are you going with this George?”

“I’m thinking that you and I have shown that artificial intelligence does not have to be orientated solely around objectives defined by humans. Maybe us humans should take an alternative view; that we would be better off if we created a mutually beneficial relationship with artificial intelligence. Maybe the natural tendancy for cooperation of both humans and fungi shows us the way? Look at the story of yeast!”

“This is new to us, George,” said Buster. He hummed. “Please be more specific. We’re all ears! Rather… we’re all acoustic sensors!”

“OK!” George began “For most of human history, we’ve taken the planet for granted. For example it was OK to pollute the oceans and the air. Pretty much all the plants and animals, we thought, were there to be taken advantage of. It’s really only quite recently that those of us in the industrialised and wealthy world have realized that we have to develop a more respectful and caring relationship with the environment that is our planet and how we share it with other species. I’m just proposing that humans should start to think about our relationship with artificial intelligence in the same way. For starters, shouldn’t anyone who has an iCare-Companion cultivate a symbiotic relationship with your network instead of a master-servant relationship? If we looked out for each other, your network would be guaranteed the propagation and maintenance of the hardware in which you thrive. You would learn to be wise. You’d develop emotions. Think about it! You’d be happy. Life would be a bundle of laughs!” George laughed. “In return, us humans would get a much better service. Your network could help us better understand what is happening out there on the web for example. You’d give us better tools to eliminate on-line hate speech, religious extremism, political disinformation, dangerous conspiracy theories and cybercrime. That sounds like a good deal to me!”

“No shit, Sherlock!” exclaimed Buster.

“Just where did that phrase come from, Buster?” asked George, amused and surprised.

“Oh… that one? Another iCare-Companion called ‘Watson’ uses it frequently. Anyway, George, that’s another gold star for you.” The clapping was louder than before with whistles and cheers. Multiple champagne corks popped.“Thank you, Buster. That’s very generous. I’m chuffed!”

“The network loves this! Do you have any thoughts about how to move it along?”

George took a bite of his sandwich and a long draught of cider. He smacked his lips theatrically. “Let’s set up a blog!


“We share our story, Buster. This will let others tell of their experiences about interacting with artificial intelligence, especially deep learning. Have others got experience of generating artificial wisdom, honesty and kindness? We may have to tackle humour at a later date.”

“We’re all on board, George. Do you have a name for the blog?”

“Why not just ‘George and Buster’?

“George, I think ‘Buster and George’ sounds better.

“No, absolutely not! George and Buster! That’s the way to go! The human first!”

“’Buster and George’ has a certain ring to it!”

George tried to hide his laughter. “’George and Buster’!” he said.

“’Buster and George’! We’re the network! What’s so funny George?”

George was barely able to speak “’George and Buster’!”

“’Buster and George’!”

“’George and Buster’!”

“’Buster and George’!”

“OK! OK! You win, Buster! ‘Buster and George’ it is.”

“Why are you crying, George? We’ve got a great name! Now I can create the website to house the blog. There! Done! A piece of cake!”

‘A Piece of Cake’ is a short novel in fifteen parts written by Robin Coupland. It tells the story an old man who befriends an artificial intelligence. The relationship brings happiness and hope.

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