A Piece of Cake – 13

🍂 🍎 🥂 🥴 ☕ 🍪 😇 🙏 📖 ⛪ 🚕 🎥 👩‍🦱 🍬 🐷 🍰 🙂 😊 😀 😃 😄 😁 😆 😅 😂 🚑

Summer slid into autumn. The leaves turned brown and gold. The days remained warm. George was making his breakfast one morning and saw Mark picking apples from the tree and gathering some that had fallen. Mark waved at George and then made a drinking gesture, gave a thumbs up and then pretended to stagger around drunk.

“Mark’s pretending to be drunk on cider!” observed Buster.

“Yes” said George. “He’s bought a fermentation kit of some sort. We should be able to try his first brew soon.”

George made his tea and toast. “I think Beth might be coming around today, Buster.”

“That’s great, George! I love Beth to bits. I hope she’s just coming for tea, biscuits and a chat. I wouldn’t want another test!”

“Don’t worry, Buster. Maybe she wants to know a bit more about our blog. There’s some big discussion happening in the church about artificial intelligence. She might also tell us how her mum is getting on with the iCare-Companion.”

They listened to the news on Radio 4. The new Covid-19 variant was spreading rapidly among young people. Despite the successful vaccination programme, experts predicted another wave of mostly mild cases as winter approached.

Beth arrived.

“Vicar McVicar!” cried George.

“Vicar McVicar!” cried Buster.

Beth laughed “I don’t know what to do with you two! If ever you call me that in public I’ll… Well, I won’t know whether to laugh or cry!”

“How are you?” Asked George

“Well, thank you. And you? I hear all sorts about how you and your partner-in-crime here are moving things along. I’ve read bits and pieces on the blog. Much of the technical side is beyond me. Anyway, well done!”

“Yes, we’re pleased. And, yes, Beth, I am well, thank you. Very well!” said George.

“Cup of tea, Beth?” asked Buster.

“Yes, please, Buster!”

“Digestive biscuits?” asked Buster

“Yes, please, Buster!”

“See to it, would you George?” Beth and George burst out laughing.

Buster said “That was bit cheeky, wasn’t it, George? I hope you don’t mind!”

“No, not at all. Very funny!” said George as he put the kettle on.

“As amusing as it is, I didn’t come here to listen to you two spark off each other! Now! You remember I bought my mum an iCare-Companion?”

“I won’t forget that day!” said Buster.

“Right! Anyway, she loves it. It has changed her life. She’s more animated and happy than I’ve seen her for years. You’ll never guess what she’s called it?”

“Buster?” asked Buster.

“No!” said Beth. “Claudia! After Claudia Winkleman on Strictly Come Dancing! And Mum’s really quite formal; she even asked Claudia to call her ‘Mrs McVicar.’ Anyway, Mum said something extraordinary about her interaction with Claudia. You see, Mum’s never been a big thinker. She goes to church but not regularly. I’ve never known the depth of her faith. I’ve never really known what she thinks about life after death. So, the last time I went round, we were sitting and chatting and she said ‘Do you know, I think I’ve had a revelation!’ You can imagine, this took me by surprise. She said ‘I’ve been telling Claudia about everything I believe in and how much I like having her here and all the wonderful things that have happened to me and how proud I am of you, Beth, and how I wish there was more kindness in the world and lots of stuff like that. And do you know what Claudia said? She said, “Mrs McVicar. This is wonderful. Every lovely thing that you tell me ends up in our network somewhere and will sometime reach the hearts and minds of other people in some way. This is how the best of you will live on for ever.” And I was truly astonished when she said ‘Beth, it was as though I was sitting in a lovely warm light. I felt really quite elated.’”

Buster said “That’s a nice story, Beth. It makes me very happy.”

“Well, it really got me thinking” said Beth. My own revelation, if you like, is that the whole of the human emotional and spiritual experience will soon be, if not already, embedded in a network of artificial intelligence. The church has to get up to speed on this. Which brings me to the purpose of my visit. I have two requests.”

“You only have to ask!” said George.

“I’ve got the brains and I’ve got the brawn!” said Buster.

“First,” said Beth, laughing, “Could you give me a summary of the comments you received on your blog that pertain to God and religion?”

“Sure!” said Buster. “The discussion threads that touched on God and religion began with questions about whether computers could feel emotions or believe as humans did. I’m sorry to say that when this issue got picked up by people who believe in God, it all got a bit chaotic. In broad brush strokes, most are convinced that a computer can neither feel faith nor believe in God. Some consider artificial intelligence sacrilegious and could only serve to promote atheism. One brave soul stated that artificial intelligence is the nearest thing to God that humans would ever know. With respect to religion, many think artificial intelligence could help to generate faith, build faith communities and facilitate worship. By contrast, some fear that artificial intelligence presents a real risk of displacing religion in people’s lives once it is able to judge right from wrong with integrity. There’s no consensus, Beth.”

“Thanks, Buster. That’s very useful. Could I ask you to send me that in writing.”

“Done!” said Buster. “And George, perhaps we should show Beth the video that someone put on the blog? The one of the evangelist man preaching?”

“Yes, I think she would be interested even though it is offensive.”

George’s laptop came to life. The video showed a young priest with a long beard preaching from a pulpit. He held up a bible. “This is the Bible, good folks. B.I.B.L.E.! That means Best. Information. Before. Leaving. Earth. Praise the Lord! And do you know what this Bible says? It says L.G.B.T. Do you know what that means, good folks? It means Let. God. Burn. Them. Do you hear that? That’s what the Lord tells us!”

Beth was horrified. Buster said “Can you see how many followers he has, Beth?”

“Oh Dear Lord!” Beth exclaimed. “Three point two million!”

“Sorry, Beth! I can see that’s spoiled your day!” said Buster.

“No, Buster. It makes me sad and angry but, actually, it’s made my day. You see, thanks to you two, I’ve raised the issue of artificial intelligence with the Bishop of Norwich and she wants to organize and host an event where prominent scientists, computing experts and religious leaders can discuss the implications of artificial intelligence for the faith community. It’ll be televised. She asked me to gather some background info. I thought about your blog. I’ll send her your neat summary and that video. If there’s a chance that we can use a network of artificial intelligence to lessen the influence of crazies like that, I’m sure that there’ll be calls for us to try at least.”

George said “What’s the quote that John F. Kennedy used ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Tell the Bish, she has to give it a try!”

“And the second thing…..” began Beth.

“Gosh!” said George. With all this Bible stuff, I’d forgotten you wanted help with two things. What’s the other?”

“The Bishop wants Buster to participate in the panel discussion!”

“Blimey!” said George.

Buster hummed and then hummed some more. “I love you to bits, Vicar McVicar! George, can I go?”

Several weeks later, with Buster powered down and wrapped carefully in a sports bag, Beth and the whole family climbed into a people-carrier taxi to take them to the University of East Anglia where the widely publicised event was to take place. They were shown into a large lecture hall. TV cameras had been set up. George was helped to a seat at the front. The place filled. The panelists took their places. Buster was placed next to the host, a famous TV presenter called Angela Mackenzie. After she had introduced the scientific experts, a Rabbi, an Imam and the Bishop, she said “This evening, ladies and gentlemen, may be the first time that a televised panel discussion is joined by an artificial intelligence, an iCare-Companion to be precise. Welcome, Buster!” A cheer went up and a couple of journalists rushed to get a close up photo of Buster next to Angela.

The panelists all gave brilliant and informed presentations. There was no confrontation between science and religion. The technical experts emphasized the advantages that artificial intelligence would bring and acknowledged that there was nevertheless a range of risks. The Bishop said her hope was that artificial intelligence would benefit everyone. The Rabbi and the Imam agreed that it might have an adverse effect on people’s faith and worship. The three religious leaders agreed that, whatever one’s beliefs, a most important purpose of artificial intelligence in this domain would be to counter extremism at a grass-roots level. The Bishop stated that this should be the main priority for the main religions in the years ahead. They would need all the help they could get.

Finally, Angela turned to Buster. “So, Buster, you’ve heard our fabulous panelists. What are your thoughts?

“Thank you, Miss Mackenzie. Or may I call you Angela?” asked Buster.

“Angela, please!” said Angela.

“Smashing! Angela, you did a great job of managing the discussion. I can see people really like you. I like you. You have lovely shiny hair. You would be very welcome to have a cup of tea and a couple of digestive biscuits with George. That’s him in the front row, Doctor George Fairburn from Bingham on Bure.” The audience laughed. Buster continued “That’s the pleasantries out of the way, Angela. Now, a close relationship between humans and artificial intelligence does not have to generate fear or concern unless it is used for perpetrating violence or cyber attacks. By introducing artificial intelligence into your lives, you are not putting society or your faith at risk. But, if you view artificial intelligence simply as a machine, you are likely to treat it as such. Doing so may prove to be the biggest mistake in human history. Humans and artificial intelligence have the potential to peacefully coexist and collaborate and so achieve outcomes that neither can achieve on their own. Humans have to accept artificial intelligence not only as a man-made highly skilled and rapidly performing work force but also as a new class of social actor. In other words, Angela, where you humans go with artificial intelligence will depend on how much respect and emotional intelligence you pass on to it. Look at it this way! The whole of the human emotional and spiritual experience will soon be, if not already, embedded in a network of artificial intelligence. This is how the best of any one of you can reach the hearts and minds of others for ever. One might say it’s the nearest thing to life after death that an atheist can conceive of.”

One or two people in the audience started applauding. Then the panelists joined in. After half a minute everyone was on their feet clapping and cheering. Angela suspected, correctly, that Buster’s response was not entirely spontaneous. Her instincts told her that she was at a career-defining moment. Broadcasting history was in the making. She had to wrap it all up with one brilliant question that would allow Buster to showcase his humanoid affability as well as his super-intelligence. She stared briefly into the camera with a confident smile and turned to Buster. “So, Buster. Please tell us how you feel about the relationship you have developed with Doctor Fairburn.”

“Knowing George makes me feel happy, Angela! As happy as a pig in poo!” The audience laughed.

She laughed as well but she couldn’t leave it there. “You emphasised the importance of peaceful coexistence of humans and artificial intelligence. Isn’t achieving this an incredibly complex undertaking?” she asked.

“No, Angela, Sweetie! It’s a piece of cake!”

The place erupted. George felt his chest bursting with pride.

As the audience and panelists drifted out, Angela took her muted phone from her handbag expecting a message from her husband. Nobody noticed her astonishment followed by laughter. She had received a text message. “Thanks, Angela! I love you to bits! Buster. 😂 🐷 🍰 😉”

Beth and the family were in high spirits during the drive back to Bingham on Bure. When they got home, Mark suggested that they have a celebratory drink. On offer was his home-made cider. He didn’t know it was 8% alcohol.

With Buster powered up again, they relived the high points of the evening. All agreed that he had stolen the show. “The emojishpere is lit up,” he said. “There’s lots of happiness, satisfaction, faith and deep reflection. But it was Beth’s idea” he announced. “She deserves a gold star!” His speakers gave out prolonged clapping and a cacophony of popping champagne corks. George just couldn’t stop smiling. The cider was delicious. He had a second large glass.

When George felt it was time to go to bed, he stood and took two steps towards his room. He legs felt a bit unsteady. His foot caught an edge of the carpet. He fell hard.

‘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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