By Diane Phillips
THE weirdest thing happened this morning. It was extremely early and eerily quiet as I walked from the parking lot toward my office thinking I needed to call home and relay a message. My hands were full as usual, three newspapers, pocketbook, coffee cup, notepad and cell phone. I managed to get the key in the lock, open up, drop everything from my arms on to my desk and then I saw my phone. And I got the biggest case of goose bumps I have ever had in my life. My home number appeared on the screen.
Someone I don’t know knew I was going to call that number and they put it there. Had to have been. Honestly, it’s creepy, and if they could do that, what else could they do? What else could it have been unless for some reason more bizarre than what was in my head appearing on my phone I’d been selected as a human experimental target for AI, artificial intelligence.
I was in such shock that on an ordinary morning with no one around me something knew what I planned to do and rushed in to assist. Could it have been a coincidence? Did I just hit something on the phone that took me to that number even though it was not anywhere near the last number in the call log? What are the chances when I have more than 4,000 contact numbers that I would accidentally trigger the number I’d been thinking of ringing? Could someone have heard me thinking? If I had been thinking aloud, it would be understandable that Alexa, Siri, Cortana or any of that crowd so eager to please at the drop of a command could have heard and responded. I rarely talk to myself anyway and now I vow never to, no matter how quiet it gets.
Whether this morning’s incident was a coincidence or an extreme case of experimentation with artificial intelligence may be a moot point in the broader scheme of things but AI is with us everywhere without our realizing it and I fear it is creeping into our lives in such a way that we will no longer rely on our own ability to think. What happens when you start to Google a subject and the line finishes itself and you think to yourself, isn’t that cool, saved me all that trouble. How did it know? Exactly, that is the real question. How did it know? It calculated the way you think based on your Googling history and all the millions of people who Googled a similar subject before you.
The deeper concerns with this is that our own technology is outwitting us and may make us dumber because while we spend more time exercising our bodies, we spend less exercising our brains because AI is doing it for us.
Example, let’s say you want to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit so you know what the temperature is in Houston where, thanks to Google, you learned a second earlier that it was 23 degrees Celsius yesterday. You have two options, look up the conversion formula which tells you to multiply the Celsius by 1.8 and add 32, option one; or option two, Google it and let Dr. Math figure it out for you faster than you could even wrap your head around multiplying 23 x 1.8 and long before you got to adding 32. That is simple available information, not artificial intelligence but so readily available that it is a double-edge sword, providing us with info we need in a flash of a second and telling our mind to take a break because someone else will do the dirty work for it.
What if physicists like Mr. Anders Celsius and Mr. Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit had AI and Google when they were experimenting with water, ice, salt and other materials to determine freezing and boiling points and create temperature scales? Would we even have them if real people did not explore sciences that had never been explored? It is not as though the world was created in seven days with temperature scales in place like trees and animals. Great human minds saw a gap and set out to fill it. But what becomes of us when we allow convenience to govern our curiosity? What then? Does the available information at our fingertips diminish the desire to take our minds in other, unanswered directions and find solutions instead of ready answers?
There is a world of information out there on the Internet of Things where the most arcane question has an answer. Go to a fascinating site like TodayIfoundout.com and you can find out in an instant why Coca-Cola once considered doing away with its most popular drink or why baseball team managers wear the team’s uniform instead of a suit like in other sports.
Information is not the same as solution-seeking. Regardless of what happened when a number I was thinking of calling but did not knowingly press on my phone appeared on the screen, AI is not going away. I just hope it does not take our intellectual, scientific and cultural curiosity with it for without that, the human race runs in place rather than moving forward.
By the way, I did recover and used the office phone to dial home, the message got delivered. As for why baseball managers wear their team’s uniforms I have no idea. I left the site for fear I would lose time exploring all those questions to which the world already had an answer.