What is the future of humankind? And what parts of its past remain relevant?
Big questions, and if you are coming to this blog for answers, I’m afraid you’re looking in the wrong place. It sounds like the kind of big question you could type into an answer bot on a web site, and artificial intelligence (AI) could take a stab at it. Or that you could go out into nature and contemplate for a while.
This week, both of those things—the quiet of the garden and the cacophony of new computer frontiers—were relevant to my experience.
I’m reasonably sure that AI will come up with a plausible sounding answer to your philosophical query. One thing it’s likely to state is that “this is a question people have been asking for many years.” Thanks, Captain Obvious AI. I guess when you’re based on chewing up billions of pages of random text and spitting out sentences based on grammatical rules and predictive algorithms of what word would likely come next, you end up sounding a bit like a gifted (grammatically correct, right?) college freshman padding an essay.
AI will also, apparently, sound sexist and racist.
Dr. Robert Todd, a math professor at Mount Mercy University, gave an interesting talk on the nature of computer Artificial Intelligence Sept. 27. It was part of a Fall Faculty Series of talks on Humans and Machines. The next talk, on Oct. 4, will also be on AI. Its influence healthcare will be covered by Dr. Melody Jolly.
Included in this week’s presentation was Rob calling up an AI web site for some “dialogue.” One of the odd aspects of today’s AI is that it’s good enough that if you’re not paying attention, you might think there is a person at the other end, when there’s not.
Besides showing samples of texts between human and machine, Rob asked another AI site to create some watercolor portraits of “a university president.”
The resulting faces looked a bit scarily abstract. As another professor in the audience remarked, this AI bot painter apparently thinks there are serious problems with a president’s nose. AI also thinks presidents are all white men wearing western-style business suits.
Rob was pointing out that AI is based on the texts fed into it. And there are strong gender biases and racial attitudes built into the source texts.
Will we all soon be working for robot overlords? Maybe, but Rob noted that the biggest worry he has is that only large corporations are rich enough to construct and host the most complex of AI these days, which adds to the developing trend of a digital elite. On the other hand is the ability to ask and process scientific questions that would be impossible without the massive data processing of AI.
“The opportunities for science and new learning are unparalleled,” he said.
To explain a bit about how AI works without getting into concepts that are too advanced, Rob illustrated how colors in the RGB model—which you, dear reader, are using to see the hues on the screen you’re reading this blog on—can be plotted as vectors in three-dimensions. And as mathematical vector they can be added. Plus, there are paths that can be formed—a shades of grey route through the middle of the resulting color cube, for example. Rob used the analogy of a building, where things would be so many floors up, and so many doors to the right or left.
He also noted how often we already use AI. The way Google or Meta constructs our online realities by predicting what comes next after our clicks, for example. The dawning of self-driving cars. The Turnitin system many professors us to detect potential plagiarism.
It was a scary and thought-provoking look into our evolving computer-controlled reality. As a partial antidote or counterpoint, it was great to hear a different speaker on Wednesday focus on earth—literal earth, the dirt from which life springs and to which it can be therapeutic to attend to.
In recent years at MMU, a librarian, Robyn Clark-Bridges, has been tending gardens near the library. It started years ago with some Hostas from her home that she divided, and, with permission from the facilities department at MMU, planted in the shade of some pear trees.
I invited Robyn to a media writing class where PR students are learning to write feature stories—I figured that the story of the gardens would be an interesting topic. Little did I know.
For one thing, Robyn’s interest in gardening has many levels. It’s both therapy for recovering from childhood trauma, plus connecting with the divine—the garden is a place where she can pray. And her interest in plants is not casual—she took the time to become a Master Gardener, and was appointed the first “Neighborhood Captain” by Trees Forever in a local effort to replant trees following a devastating storm—a derecho—that took out much of the local tree canopy in 2020.
In “Robyn’s Garden” by the library—named not by her, but the facilities department—two of four pear trees that flanked the library were taken in the 2020 storm. At personal expense and at great effort, Robyn managed to secure two American Hornbeam trees to replace them. She is watering the young trees. If they survive, unlike pears, which are invasive and short-lived, the native Hornbeams may live for a century.
Connection to a living legacy is one pleasure for those of us who love and plant trees. Gardening, besides being good for the psyche and soul, also creates wonderful, peaceful places to be. “It’s very grounding,” Robyn said. “It’s easy to forget any outside worries.”
The students did well. They asked interesting questions, but most of all, Robyn did well, freely sharing personal anecdotes for the class. I’ll look forward to reading the resulting stories.
And after Tuesday’s foray into the constructed realities AI is capable of, it was nice to be reconnected on Wednesday to our ongoing connection to nature in our gardens. All in all, an interesting week on campus.