And so, the latest development in this brave new world of ours is that a super-robot equipped with a “neural network” can simulate the writings of William Shakespeare or the novels of Jane Austen or Sally Rooney.
Feed a template of the original into GPT-3 and artificial intelligence will compose a similar version.
Spooky? Hardly. We’re getting accustomed to communicating and doing business via technology, and Covid accelerated that trend – Zoom meetings in place of real encounters, apps to handle everyday transactions, banking by internet and Alexa can answer most questions and queries (except, reassuringly, she sometimes can’t – asked “is there a God, Alexa?”, she replied: “I cannot answer that question.”)
All this technology can be helpful and efficient, even when it slightly blunts former skills: it’s said that now most drivers use satnavs to guide them on the road, people are losing the ability to read maps and thus losing a grasp on their directional sense.
Young shop assistants who would once do quick mental arithmetic in reckoning a bill now turn to the computer to subtract 185 from 540, as I witnessed recently.
Yet I believe that the more robots and AI dominate, the more we will appreciate real human contact.
When you’ve spent 50 minutes listening to a computerised voice while waiting for “customer service” and you finally get through to someone overseas who seems to be operating from a set script, it really increases your yearning for actual encounters with real human beings (RHBs).
Thus, I have noticed my increased surge of affection for the RHBs who do a job that cannot – yet – be done by a robot. Last week there was lovely Will, who so cheerfully fixed the faulty oil gauge on my car, explaining how the gadget worked and exchanging friendly conversation over the modest bill.
Then there was Steve, a handyman of many talents who fixed a bathroom leak that was threatening to erode the ceiling beneath it. He then kindly did a bit extra in the garden while we chatted about folk dancing and his hobby of collecting vintage cigarette cards (younger readers may be astonished to learn that cigarette manufacturers used to give away rather fetching picture-card collections as an inducement to smoke more Craven A.)
Could a robot be your coiffeur? I hope not, because sessions with Wendy, who confects my hair, are all about human contact – she’s almost as much a therapist as a coiffeur, with her wise and genial observations on life and people.
Can teaching be done by artificial intelligence? Perhaps it can, but not the personal mentoring that goes with it. I have a monthly singing lesson – for reasons of pulmonary health rather than for performance ambitions – with the wonderful Avril, an experienced diva, and she teaches me much more than arpeggios and breathing lessons. There is a mentoring that goes with good instruction, and lessons on how to navigate life’s problems and issues.
We all use Amazon and online retail – such services can be excellent – but it’s much more of an authentic experience to walk into a shop and interact with a salesperson, especially a supportive and friendly one. And even if books do come to be written by robots, let’s hope bookshops endure to accord us the serenity of browsing and of sharing in events around literature, history and storytelling.
When a new medium or technology emerges, the new form doesn’t always just replace the old – it may recontextualise previous practices.
When nylon and polyester were first launched on the market, it was expected that artificial fibres would replace traditional ones such as cotton and wool. But while nylon had its uses, older, organic fabrics actually became more valued – the posh thing was not nylon bedsheets, but very fine cotton ones.
Robots will also have their uses – and their exasperations too – but I believe they will make us reflect a lot more about the value of real human interaction. Automation may replace many jobs, but those jobs that only a human being can really carry out properly may gain in status and become more cherished.
Some medical care can probably be robotised – robot surgery is said to be remarkable – but can a robot hold your hand when you’re undergoing a difficult medical procedure? When I had a minor eye operation, the kindness, attention and even joking the human medical team showed (while I inwardly flinched from the instruments) would have been irreplace-
able by automation.
The tragic cases during lockdown of patients dying alone have imparted a new significance to the phrase “hold my hand – I’m dying”. At life’s end, that human touch is, literally, unique.
Thinking about the robotisation of so much around us has given me an enhanced sense of gratitude to the work and ministrations of real human beings.
The protocols around Covid have underlined this even more. The constant – if necessary – warnings to “keep your distance” seemed to signal our isolation in a technocratic world.
The masks may have been medically mandated too, and maybe will be again, but masks de-humanise the human face, and our need to connect with others. The more that robots proliferate, Barbra Streisand’s soppy lyrics that people who need people will have ever more resonance.
Robots may write a Shakespeare facsimile, but I bet we’ll always prefer the authentic version of the Prince of Denmark, delivered by a real human being of flesh and blood.