Living with AI

My knowledge of artificial intelligence is, to put it mildly, limited. In the 1980s, I was hooked to a TV show called Knight Rider, which featured the dashing David Hasselhoff and his crimefighter-in-arms — a talking, self-driving smart car named KITT. The show aired on Dhaka TV and Kolkatans of a certain vintage will remember the strenuous exertions one went through to watch American TV serials beamed from across the border. The process involved sending someone up to the roof to wiggle the antenna till it caught the transmission, or installing what we optimistically called a “booster” on top of our black-and-white TV sets. Neither method was very effective, with the result that Hasselhoff’s adventures with KITT were mostly watched through a scratchy haze. Even so, I loved the show. And to this day, I’m not sure who appealed to me more — the dishy Hasselhoff or his witty, uber-intelligent super car. 

I’ve had other brushes with AI — once again via popular culture. Think Vicki, the solemn, pinafore-clad little girl robot in the TV show Small Wonder; R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars; the replicants in Blade Runner; the bad cyborg and the good cyborg (both played by the hulking, deadpan Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the Terminator movies; David, the boy robot who wants to be a real boy in AI; Ava, the all too sentient female android in Ex-Machina and, of course, HAL, the rogue supercomputer in Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic 2001: A Space Odyssey

A peach-coloured Google Home Mini, the author’s latest acquisition
This week I reinvented my association with AI, that is, transported it from celluloid to the physical plane. A tech-savvy friend had been telling me for months that a virtual assistant like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa would be very cool to have around. So I finally overcame my luddite instincts and bought a Google Home Mini, a cute little peach-coloured orb that flashes into life the moment I utter the magic words “Hey Google” or “Ok Google” and is ready to answer my questions.  

Of course, I don’t know why I should ask it for information that I can just as easily Google on my smartphone or computer. But it does play music on demand and I’m told it can be synced with apps and other thingummies so I can tell it to dim or brighten my lights (provided I install “smart bulbs”), shop or order food online, and generally make my life at home a whole lot “smarter” than it is now.

I must confess that so far I’ve just been fooling around with it. And I’ve been amused and taken aback by its occasional sass at my random queries. For instance, when I asked, “Ok, Google, can you answer my questions?”, it shot back — “I’ve got more answers than you’ve had hot dinners. What’s on your mind?” Or, when I asked if it knew everything, it replied in that cool, clear, cheerful female voice, “I know enough to know that I don’t know everything.” 

That’s smart, right? Sure. But here’s the thing: To be up close with the power and potential of AI can also be slightly unnerving. In fact, my diminutive AI roomie has managed to take a bit of the shine off my romanticism about artificial intelligence and the future. Suddenly, I have become hyper aware of the presence of AI in our daily lives — in search engines, in Google Maps, in ordering an Uber, in Facebook, which eerily kept showing me hotels in a city that I happened to mention while talking on the phone… I find myself thinking more and more about the way AI, wherever it is adopted, is automatically and constantly learning, constantly improving its cognitive functions.

The late physicist Stephen Hawking once said that artificial intelligence could “take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate” and that if it ever matched or superseded human intelligence it could “spell the end of the human race”. Now, I’m not a pessimist, and I know our tech gurus are using AI to benefit humankind in all manner of ways. But after spending a few days with my virtual assistant, I do feel a tiny stab of relief every time it answers an abstract question with “Sorry, I don’t understand.”