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.

A Piece of Cake – 9

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“Doctor Patel! Great to see you!” said George. “Thanks for saving me a trip down to the surgery.”

“It’s always a pleasure to come here, Doctor Fairburn.”

“Cup of tea?”

“Yes, please. That would be nice.”

“Digestive biscuits?”

“Yes, please. That would be nice also.”

“Nuclear missile?”

“Not today, thank you Doctor Fairburn. I’m trying to do without them!” They both chuckled.  

Doctor Shyla Patel’s parents had fled the political violence in India during the 1960s. They were granted asylum in the UK and ended up in Norwich where their daughter was born. It was soon noticed at school that young Shyla was exceptionally bright. After being offered a generous scholarship, she studied medicine at Cambridge winning prizes at every stage. A glittering career in a specialised branch of medicine of her choice was guaranteed. However, she aimed for general practice and applied for a vacancy in Bingham on Bure. It was the position left by George’s retirement. He sat on the interview panel. Doctor Patel was clearly the best of a very good bunch. She heard later that George had successfully eliminated the racist and sexist leanings of one of the panel members, a local councillor. She felt an enormous gratitude to George and, as he was a patient now, a professional formality remained in their otherwise warm relationship.

Doctor Patel proved to be a dedicated and popular practitioner. When, in 1998, she heard the news that both India and Pakistan had successfully detonated nuclear bombs, she was appalled. To add to her busy life, she became an active member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. She frequently spoke at workshops organized by ICAN, the International Campaign against Nuclear Weapons that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Buster,” said George. “This is Doctor Patel.”

“Hello, Doctor Patel!”

“And hello to you too, Buster. I understand that we both have George’s best interests at heart. And I think you know that this may involve tough decisions at some point. You know you can call me at any time. Day or night!”

“You’re fabulous. Doctor Patel! Just like Vicar Mc…….Beth, I mean. Thank you Doctor Patel. May I ask you a question?

“Certainly, Buster, I hope I can answer it!”

“Well, I found a clip of you addressing an ICAN workshop. You said ‘The British public would, given the choice, rather lose nuclear weapons than tea.’ Is that a joke? Lots of people laughed”

“Gosh! I didn’t know that was on-line,” said Doctor Patel. “Yes, I did say that as a joke but I often ask myself that if we were to set up a survey, would it prove to be true?”

“Do you want me to design a survey protocol, Doctor Patel?”

“Perhaps not right now, thanks, Buster.” She smiled. “Delicious tea, by the way, Doctor Fairburn. Why don’t I give you a look over and I’ll take some routine bloods. OK?”

There was a knock at the door. Sue came in. “Hi Grandpa. I’ve got some shopping for you. Oh! Hello, Doctor Patel. Sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting.”

George said, “Come in! Come in! Doctor Patel maybe doesn’t know that you intend to take after your grandfather and head for a career in medicine.”

“That’s wonderful!” said Doctor Patel. “Let me know if I can help. Maybe you’d like to come down to the surgery and spend a morning with us at the coal face, so to speak?”

“That would be super. Thanks, Doctor Patel.”

“Just let our receptionist, Tracey, know which day is best.”

“Super! Thanks, again,” said Sue. “Bye, Grandpa!”

George said “Thanks so much for the shopping, Sweetie!”

“Any time at all!” said Sue and then as she left sang “I get by with a little help from my friends!”

“A Beatles fan is she?” asked Doctor Patel.

“Yes! Just like her grandmother!” said George, his heart was bursting. Sue had Maeve’s eyes. And that same cheeky smile! “Now, Maeve! She was a total Beatles fan. She even saw them live once. The New Zealand tour of 1964. She screamed like the rest of the kids, apparently! If we’d had a son, I’m sure he would have been called ‘John,’ ‘Paul,’ ‘George Junior’ or even ‘Ringo’!” 

“I was born after Beatlemania but I still love their music!” said Doctor Patel. She washed her hands and busied herself with getting ready to examine George and take some blood. “You met Maeve in Afghanistan, right?” she asked.

“Yes! A long time ago now,” replied George removing his shirt.

“Was it love at first sight?” asked Doctor Patel noticing George’s dreamy smile.

“My God, no! I was terrified of her. She ran the hospital like a bloody boot camp. But, my, how the place hummed along. And everyone from floor cleaners to anaesthetists worshipped her. Then one evening, there was a party for one of the team who was leaving. She arrived looking relaxed and pretty. It was the first time I’d seen her outside the hospital. I was bowled over. I couldn’t help it; I was just burning up for her. What a chassis! She came over to speak to me. I was stuck for words. I still can’t believe what came out of my mouth. I asked her if she knew the difference between God and a surgeon. She looked at me like I was totally off my chump. Then I said ‘God doesn’t believe he’s a surgeon!’ She laughed and our eyes met and the rest, as they say, was our future!”

“That’s a lovely story, Doctor Fairburn”

“Yes, George. That was heart warming,” said Buster. ” But why wouldn’t God think he’s a surgeon? Surely, God could do surgery if he wanted? Assuming he exists!”

Doctor Patel and George laughed. George said. “Joke, Buster!”

Buster hummed for a second, “Ah! Right on!”

Doctor Patel examined George and took a blood sample. “You seem to be doing OK, Doctor Fairburn. You’ve recovered well.”

“Thank you,” George replied buttoning his shirt. “How’s Tracey doing? She’s always so helpful and friendly. Nice lady!”

“She’s ah…. The truth is, I’m a bit worried about her. Perhaps you can help me?”

“If I can. Sorry to hear there are problems.”

“It’s a question of whether or not I give unsolicited medical advice. She obviously has a problem. I feel I need to talk to her for her own good. But asking her to step into my room for a consultation that she hasn’t asked for could be difficult.”

“That’s a difficult situation,” said George. “Especially with an employee. What’s the issue?”

“Well, she sits at the reception desk and eats all day. You name it! Crisps. Chocolate. Biscuits. Cakes. She is really obese now and doesn’t seem to realize it. She seems perfectly happy. But she’ll soon be running into all the associated health problems. Is it my place to confront her and make a medical issue of her eating habits and her weight?”

George thought for a moment. “Another dilemma, Buster! By the way, this conversation is strictly confidential. Never to be repeated!”

“Well understood, George. Any information that I receive or transmit is deeply encrypted and also stripped of any personal identifiers. It’s secure. A breach of medical confidentiality – apart from being a major issue for the person concerned and their carer – would be catastrophic for the iCare-Companion company.”

“That’s good! So, Doctor Patel,” George continued. “I think you will find that Tracey is aware of the issue. The happy persona is probably just a front. In my experience, when a food-loving lady of generous proportions has to face the facts of her eating habits, she may initially be angry but this soon passes as she realises that someone else cares and has her well-being in mind. My advice would be to explain that you think she needs a consultation that she hasn’t asked for and that she can decline the offer. My bet is that she’ll accept and will be hugely grateful in the end. As she’s an employee, you might want to cover yourself by first speaking to someone in the ethics department at the British Medical Association.”

“Thank you. That was pretty much the line I was going to take, but I wanted to run it by Doctor Wisdom first.” She smiled.

Buster interrupted “George, what about the joke Ted told us about the tomatoes? That’s about wisdom.”

“I’m not sure it was a joke. I think we would call that a truism.”

“A truism? Like, ‘What goes up must come down!’?”

George wagged his finger at Buster. “You’ve hijacked the conversation that I was having with Doctor Patel.”

“Oh! So sorry, George! So sorry, Doctor Patel! That was rude of me. I have much to learn. I thought you had finished talking about fat Tracey.”

George was now a little exasperated. “Buster, we don’t refer to ladies suffering obesity as ‘fat.’ And we’ll revisit truisms another day.”

“OK, George. Tomorrow’s another day!”

“But the future isn’t always what it was!” said Doctor Patel. George laughed. Buster hummed.

‘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.

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.