The spring of our discontent

It’s spring again, so I bought a book called Global Catastrophic Risks. It’s not the right book for the season but I’m compelled to read it because it cost so much. It’s thick and scientific with a Bruegel painting on the cover, one of those 16th-century scenes with a lot of small figures, heads shaped like moles.

It’s also the first spring we haven’t had to think about Covid since 2019. But I am not skipping through the daisies, I’m feeling a different kind of uncertainty now.

Of the global catastrophic risks pandemics rank pretty high. Comets, nuclear wars, even “super intelligence” makes the list. That’s why I bought the book, because I thought it was all about technology, but AI is just one of many risks.

I don’t like to think of myself as someone who dwells on bad things. But that’s probably a bias that prevents me from seeing myself clearly. The book covers a lot about biases, it seems there are hundreds, and it’s no wonder we humans can’t agree because we all see and think about things differently.

Where we live, Covid doesn’t make the news much anymore. It’s been replaced by AI, layoffs in the tech sector, failing banks, and basketball.

This week OpenAI released the next generation of their chatbot engine GPT-4, and Microsoft announced a new Office product called Copilot that uses technology similar to ChatGPT called natural language processing, or prompts. You type in what you want it to do (like, what trends are you seeing across this Excel sheet?) and it spits back results. It infers what you want and works across massive data sets to produce it.

People are going bananas over the Microsoft announcement, with more than a million views on YouTube and soaring stock prices. It promises to “take the drudgery out of work” and “return the joy and creativity to work.” That may be true. I guess we’ll see!

Despite what you think about AI, one thing we can probably agree on is the level of uncertainty it creates. Not as much the science fiction aspect (robots taking over), but what’s happening in the short term and how it’s moving so fast.

The speed it’s taking off and evolving resembles the pandemic for me. In this way, AI is the ultimate news story because it affects all of us and every day there’s something new. The news could be promising, could be deadly, no one knows! We’ve likely made up our minds already based on our biases.

One bias I’ve got is the optimist bias, the one that thinks “I’m sure everything will be fine.” That’s what prevents me from stocking up on canned foods and bottled water in the case of an earthquake or extended power outage. They say you should keep a lot of small bills on hand for when the payment systems go down and we have to revert to cash. I just can’t think that way, even though I probably should. Because thinking that way allows for the possibility it could be true.

Then there’s the anchoring bias, another one I’ve got in spades, where you pivot too hard on the most recent thing you’ve heard to inform your thinking. The little bit of knowledge I’ve collected on AI is making me feel like an expert in an area I don’t know much about. But it’s not stopping me from talking about it. And that’s probably another bias, the jackass bias.

I was born in 1970 so I’ve only seen a couple catastrophes first hand. There was 9/11 and a 6.8 earthquake in Seattle that same year, both of which made me think for the first time I could die. In the case of the earthquake, I crouched under my work desk as things broke around me and the building shook (I was on the eighth floor and the building was almost one hundred years old). It was nothing like the earthquakes that recently hit Turkey and Syria of course, nothing like the earthquakes most of us never hear about. Except for this one, I was there.

The pandemic gave most everyone a similar feeling: this thing I can’t see, which could be anywhere, might creep into my nose and kill me. It could strike at anytime. We all responded in different ways, and our biases informed our actions and beliefs based on what we read and heard, what we wanted to believe.

These moments shock us into the reality of what it means to truly live and die. Most days we don’t go there, it would be too bleak. Our biases protect us from the awful truth that one day our lives will end: how it ends is uncertain, but it’s likely not good. If you want certainty, you can have that: we’re all going to die!

I think this is why we have entertainment and sports, drugs and alcohol and kids and spring, pets, comedy, the travel industry: to distract us from the truth that one day the world will end.

That one day is in a far-off future none of us will live to see, if we’re lucky. The truth is abstracted and we’re probably better as a result. Happier, at least.

Categories: musings, technology, writing

Tags: , ,

22 replies

  1. I think we’re on the same page, Bill. My bias is to be worried about things like AI, because it’s being brought along too fast to iron out the kinks before the damage is done. Like with social media. We let Zuckerberg get his tendrils in too deep, and now nothing can be done about it and a whole generation of kids is screwed up!

    I’ve also developed a new bias that we might well not luck out. The end of the world could be a 21st century thing. 😨

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Kevin. The social media comparison is the first one that came to mind for me as I started thinking about the commodification of generative AI, the gold rush mentality we so easily fall into. It’s hard to avoid, and irresistible for smart people who develop the tech and get rich fast off it. The more I’ve researched how ML works the more of an appreciation and respect I’ve developed for the people in the field. It’s mind boggling! And the more it concerns me that we’ll be able to develop machines one day that can reason, with the kind of flexibility and nuance that’s needed in order to avoid unintended consequences. I actually want to get into the field and do so from an ethics-led POV, so that’s my hope. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece. AI worries me, as do many things. I feel a general sense of malaise, but that’s probably because I live in Glasgow!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Bill. I laugh with particular recognition at this sentiment: “It’s not the right book for the season but I’m compelled to read it because it cost so much. . .” : )

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We’re a long way from the ‘paper clip’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right! I remember that! Or worse, “Clippy.” John Oliver featured that in a recent episode with humorous results, love him!

      Liked by 1 person

      • One thing that Covid showed me about my own bias was how much I over estimated the motivation to act in the interests of society to address global issues. It has left me feeling less optimistic about the future, including AI.
        That will probably make for more flipancy as a psyche defence.
        Be well and do good

        Liked by 1 person

      • I do mind, in a good way! And thanks for sharing that. Odd to reflect on Covid three years along, innit? And to draw parallels with the AI because I think there’s a similar uncertainty or fragility worth considering there. Perhaps as you suggest one caused us to feel differently about the other.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve just seen a delightful cartoon – a woman enters a kindergarten room, piece of paper in hand, and reads a message:
        “Zack Berry your Daddy is calling from work with a question about the computer”.

        Let’s hope the up and coming generation ‘get’ AI.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think they already do get it, most likely. I didn’t grow up talking to device units or issuing voice commands like that, but they have.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Isn’t there a bias or filter based on death anxiety? Covid may have spawned a whole new horde of hypochondriacal doom sayers. Of course, your title is a riff on Richard III and for him, his biases may have prevented him from a realistic risk assessment, he was calculating but could’ve used a good cold-blooded AI to calculate the odds he’d survive and he wouldn’t have ended up buried under a parking lot. Maybe the AI will help us make rational choices (optimist War of the Roses-tinted glasses).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Perhaps anxious pessimism is the only valid (see also ‘rational’, ‘realistic’, ‘despairing’, ‘depressed’) state to inhabit in the 21st C. In Australia they are working hard to terrify us about the ‘Chinese threat’. Perhaps it’s real, perhaps a strategy to deflect from spending obscene sums on US and UK submarines that will be obsolete before their 2040 delivery date. Time to hide under the doona, I reckon.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I just finished a NYT article about the investigation into COVID’s origins (the market theory aka wild raccoon dog or some-such, and the lab leak theory). If we can remove the politics from the case with an independent study we might learn the origin, but hard to say right? Strange, makes me think of the final scene in the first Raiders of the Lost Ark film where the ark of the covenant gets buried in that warehouse with other wooden crates. Seems the truth of the virus’s origin could be the same…

      Liked by 2 people

  7. During my existential crisis of a few years ago, I went through a period where mortality frequently barged in on me at night and shook me with the fear of death. Happy now to say I no longer fear death. I do occassionally fear that I might come back, though. You know, reincarnate. I don’t think that would be much fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s funny in a macabre way, the best kind of humor. I’ve set that book aside in favor of the novel Less, it goes down a lot easier. Too much to think about with all that catastrophic talk. Living can be hard enough sometimes let alone the dying part ha ha!


Leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: