I can’t log on to Facebook these days without getting friend requests from half-naked women with a propensity for lying belly-down on beaches and wearing nothing but dental floss for underwear.
“They’re bots! They’re not real people! It’s an algorithm,” I insist to a sceptical wife. “It knows I’m a middle-aged man.”
“It knows you’re a pervert.”
But the endless intrusions from bots, the data mining, the Orwellian surveillance and the omnipresent fear of being monitored inevitably leads to paranoia. Why me? Why so many beautiful women? Maybe I’m a sex pest. Maybe it’s the awkward fact that I have penned three books with the words ‘sexy’, ‘sexier’ and ‘sins’ in the titles.
Perhaps I’m a sitting duck for the sinister data harvesters, slashing their way through my privacy settings to seduce me with matters of the flesh. Artificial intelligence is already pickpocketing my livelihood, it might as well steal my soul, too.
Last year, it took my cash. My credit card was hacked twice in a month. Had I been robbed a third time, I was going to arrange monthly GIRO payments with the hackers just to make life easier for everyone involved.
The bots, the avatars, the purveyors of artificial intelligence know everything about my life and career. Literally. At Christmas, my British mother showed off her new toy, the Amazon Alexa, by leaning into an oval- shaped speaker in the kitchen and asking: “Hey, Alexa, who is Neil Humphreys?”
“Neil Humphreys is a Singapore author, who was born in Dagenham, England,” came the staccato, but strangely erotic, reply, going into considerable detail about my work and family.
I was appalled at the gross intrusion of one’s privacy, terrified at the increasing omnipotence of artificial intelligence and slightly aroused that the sexy female voice thingy knew who I was.
The ego was shattered, however, when I returned to Singapore and my daughter asked the same question to her new Google Mini smart speaker. It turns out the speaker was not so smart.
“Hey, Google, who is Neil Humphreys?”
My daughter asked. Nothing.
She tried again.
“Hey, Google, what is Neil Humphreys?”
“A dickhead,” came my wife’s voice from the living room. We stopped playing with Google after that.
But there’s no longer anything virtual about my daughter’s surreal reality. The Kubrickian celluloid fantasies of my childhood are now humdrum banality. She has informative and meaningful conversations with HAL, that terrifying, talking speaker on her desk, chatting about the weather and sharing jokes.
Scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey play out in my daughter’s bedroom every evening. If that voice ever starts singing, ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your heart to do,’ I will shit myself.
My daughter’s mini-speaker serves as an invisible friend, a weatherman, a newsreader, a radio DJ giving traffic updates, a calculator, a music player, an encyclopaedia, an alarm clock and a comedian (though its material is a bit crap).
The print version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica lasted 244 years until the Internet put it out of business. For the price of half a dozen cinema tickets, the Google Mini could put half of the electronics and media industries out of business.
The technical half of my career is already obsolete. As the Internet exploded, I learned to master the art of newspaper layout and design, fussed over the minutiae of sub-editing and developed a knack for lame puns in headlines with all the enthusiasm of a blacksmith watching the first Model T Ford roar past his horse stable.
Of course, technology optimists must interject here and point out that the smartest computer will only ever be as smart as the smartest human programmer. In essence, it’s still just a sheep bleating on behalf of its shepherd.
In the print media industry, for example, templates can design generic newspaper pages, but they can’t improvise with a visual flourish or come up with a witty headline pun about Trump (although there’s really no excuse when your surname is the British verb for a loud fart. And no sub-editing software will spend five minutes exploring the etymology of the word ‘fart’ either, as I just did.).
But it’s not about artificial intelligence doing a job as well as human intelligence. It’s about doing it cheaper.
In November 2017, a McKinsey Global Institute report showed that up to 800 million global workers would lose their jobs to new technology by 2030. In the UK, a Deloitte study predicted that, by 2034, robots would do 35 percent of the jobs done by people today.
Too alarmist? Maybe. But switchboard operators, factory workers, checkout cashiers, bank staff, train ticket sellers and retailers generally might disagree. In January, Amazon Go opened a convenience store in Seattle. Customers wander in, pick up their items, which are scanned as they are lifted from the shelves, and pay via a phone app. No checkouts. No cashiers. No people. It’s an exchange with no human brains involved, like a gift swap at a neo-Nazi Christmas party.
And the middle classes won’t be spared either. The robots have already come for those in the print publishing industries. Then they’ll come for radiologists, mortgage brokers, paralegals, accountants and any other skilled industry where the human touch can be important, but not essential.
So I’m going the other way. I’m going retro.
I’m buying stuff and selling skills that can’t be replicated, cloned or hacked. I have vinyl record players that might play scratchy Beatles albums, but don’t steal my credit card details. Unlike online videos, my DVD viewing isn’t constantly interrupted with ads for penis extensions (I really must stop watching those videos).
And I prefer magazine pieces that can cram an empathetic understanding of the socio-economic effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with mentions of Kubrick, Orwell, Trump, flatulence and Photoshopped images of beach babes confusing their gums for their arse cheeks because that’s where they shove their dental floss.
Let’s see a computer try and write a column like that.