Opinion Editorial February, 2024: In Search of A Problem

opinion editorial
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

The world is full of problems in search of solutions. After thousands of years of crop domestication, some of those problems are still found in farming. In fact, farmers have been plagued during that whole time by wild animals. One of the oldest solutions is the scarecrow.

When I stayed with this indigenous Kavet rice farmer in northeastern Cambodia, it was not birds that threatened his livelihood during the harvest. It was mainly wild pigs. In this month's photo, he is demonstrating the local solution to that problem. Approximately every thirty minutes throughout the day and night, someone from his family steps outside his house and pulls on a rope for a few minutes. That rope is connected to a wooden clapping device in the middle of his rice field and the noise scares away any pigs that are eating the rice.

Someone has to work the night shift and, therefore, one less person is available to contribute their labor to the harvest the next day. I remember thinking how simple an engineered, autonomous solution to this problem would be.

Increasingly, the world is full of solutions in search of problems. Last month, the annual Consumer Electronics Show demonstrated this clearly. Its central theme was artificial intelligence. While that technology has the potential to solve real problems, lack of artificially-intelligent mirrors, pillows and toothbrushes are not among them. Nor is unemployment. Yet, the week after CES, the International Monetary Fund warned that AI will impact around 40% of traditional jobs and increase societal inequality.

Amid all this news, I conducted one of the most ludicrous examples of AI research I could think of: I asked an AI bot to write a campaign speech, in the style of a leading American presidential candidate, arguing the case that the next American president should be an AI bot. It actually did a pretty good job. I was stunned when, a few days later, the Democratic outside candidate Dean Phillips said that he would be America's first "AI president."

Even that, though, was not the craziest AI-related news story from last month. In the UK, Ashley Beauchamp was trying to get simple information from an online AI customer service bot. He wanted the phone number for customer service after the bot was unable to give him the status of a parcel delivery. Frustrated, he asked the bot instead to write a poem about the delivery company's bad service. It obliged and the poem went viral on social media. The bot has since been disabled.

We've all experienced bad customer service. And we're all indoctrinated to some degree. Last month, we learned that AI should perhaps come to mean "Artificial Indoctrination." People were the target of exactly this kind of indoctrination, last month. An AI bot that had deep-faked US president Joe Biden's voice made robocalls attempting to dissuade people from voting in the New Hampshire primary.

Last month marked the 80th anniversary of the first digital computer, Colossus. (Its very existence was classified until twenty years ago.) It was built on the pioneering work of Alan Turing. He was the first to propose, seriously, that computers have the capacity to mimic organic intelligence. Unlike some AI practitioners today, though, he did not view intelligence as a problem to be solved. Organic intelligence did not evolve to solve any problems because that is not how evolution works. Instead, the Kavet rice farmer's solution — simple as it is — is possible only due to billions of years of evolution.

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