I WONDER what Almighty God thought of Are You Scared Yet, Human? (Wednesday of last week)? BBC1’s Panorama presented a round-up of how we employ our divinely ordained gifts to create technologies that are only too likely to prove our eventual misery and destruction — and “eventual” might mean tomorrow.
Every action that we take, every word that we speak, involving a smart electronic device is now logged as data, creating an ever-richer file of our tastes and preferences; so advertisers can ever more precisely target us with the products that we really, really need to buy. The company eBay is said to have amassed twice as much data on us as the number of words written throughout history; 90 per cent of the world’s data have been generated in the past two years.
AI has potential for good: already it can hugely speed up and more finely tune chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Such AI is now self-learning, programmed to develop exponentially beyond its original programming (sounds familiar, God?). Facial-recognition CCTV footage, all centrally and automatically monitored, offers governments surveillance over entire populations, nipping “trouble” in the bud before it flowers.
China surely leads the way here. Prosperity, public order, freedom from crime: living in a “smart city” offers great benefits — unless you want to protest, challenge, or question authority. However large the crowd, your identity is recognised: there is nowhere to hide. Most terrifying is the field of warfare. Ever-more sophisticated AI weapons systems can destroy targets with pinpoint precision, but who identifies the target?
The autonomy of the weapons, now that human agency to pull the trigger is no longer required, magnifies hugely the potential for catastrophic lethal disaster. The employees of key AI companies in the United States have refused to work with the Pentagon to develop such weapons, but the US government sees no other way to counter the threat posed by China, which is certainly (and, it seems, far less scrupulously) producing them. “AI is developing faster than our ability to control it.” So, who is in charge round here?
More surveillance might help to avert the horrors of Channel 4’s new drama Before We Die (Wednesday of last week, first of six episodes). Detective Hannah Laing’s wayward son, whom she shopped on a drugs charge that resulted in two years’ porridge, works as a lowly pot-boy in fellow ex-con’s restaurant, then morphs into undercover agent, following the threads of his Serbo-Croat bosses’ campaign to corner the market in cocaine, and so avenge their brutal murder of his mother’s lover. Everyone knows that Bristol is a bit rough, but surely not quite this bad?
Friday Night Dinner: Ten years and a lovely bit of squirrel (Channel 4, Friday) celebrated the marvellous sitcom. This most disfunctional of functioning families presents an interesting picture of religion. Their Jewishness is hardly observant in any sense of spiritual faith, but rock solid in one practice: gathering faithfully every Friday for a shared meal. We might learn from this.