While at first glance, artificial intelligence, friends and pets don’t appear to have anything in common, these topics form the basis for this month’s missive.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, has been a part of our lives for a while now, from robot vacuum cleaners to Alexa to self-driving cars and the robots we see in supermarkets. For example, the Stop & Shop in my area has a robot called Marty who roams the aisles looking for spills – and spooking kids and customers like me who still aren’t accustomed to robots stalking them while they shop.
But AI has taken on a whole new meaning due to one of its latest applications: the chatbot app. This ingenious, or nefarious, application, depending on your viewpoint, lets students use AI to write essays and complete other school assignments. It also could be used by the remaining media corporations, which want to gut newsrooms even further and replace reporters with AI robots, even though having a glorified computer gather news doesn’t even begin to qualify as news-gathering.
At this point, I can categorically declare that you’ll never have to worry about me abrogating my monthly responsibility as a columnist to artificial contraptions. I attest that this, and all my columns, are written by a living, breathing person, albeit a kvetchy older one.
Despite my objections to the expanded uses of AI, I suspect that corporate tycoons are salivating over getting rid of their workers and replacing them with machines that don’t need pay or benefits. That could spell the end of civilization as we know it.
My dim view of AI and robots dates to when I read Isaac Asimov’s “Robot series” of books and saw “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the movie where Hal, the cantankerous and devilish computer running the spaceship, dooms that deep-space mission.
Quite frankly, I’m appalled by the recent discussions of AI replacing the creative abilities of my southpaw brain – especially in the wake of us just starting to feel fully normal again after three years of living daily with the fear and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why I’m extremely resistant to the idea of ceding any part of my life to Hal’s 21st-century equivalents.
Sadly, I recently lost one of those friends whose visits, calls and texts kept me going during the dark days of the pandemic. Rick Thurmond and I were colleagues at The Sun Chronicle, a daily newspaper in Attleboro, for more than 25 years, and for a good deal of that time, we bonded over working the night shift.
Our relationship in a bustling pre-COVID-19 newsroom filled with opinionated editors, reporters and photographers was the antithesis of what working in a mostly sterile AI newsroom would be like. The atmosphere was lively, full of talk and teeming with humanity. We’d have heartfelt conversations and occasional arguments, but always in a way that was respectful. Lasting friendships were often formed, and that was the case with Rick.
Six years ago in March, we took early retirement together, and soon after our last day at work, we started meeting regularly for lunch. In the process, we took our work friendship to a new level, and we had become quite close when the pandemic hit.
After a few weeks, even COVID-19 couldn’t stop us from getting together. In the summer of 2020, well before vaccines became available, we met in parks for picnic lunches. The following summer, after we were vaccinated, we were able to return to restaurants.
Our friendship flourished, and when my friend’s COPD became too debilitating, we regularly had lunch at his apartment, until he moved to Acton, Massachusetts, about an hour away from the Attleboro area, about a year ago.
We kept in touch by phone and text, and I had every intention of visiting him, but life kept getting in the way, which is a way of saying that my procrastination took its toll. That’s because this past March, I learned Rick had lost his health battle at the age of 68.
Since his passing, I’ve taken solace in our friendship and in all of the stories that we exchanged during our lunches. In the process, I’ve become reacquainted with the old adage that one of the toughest things about growing old is seeing friends and relatives predecease you.
Cooper and Buddy are keepers
Another thing that AI can’t take the place of is the bonds that we form with our pets – despite all of their quirks. Even though my pets – my nearly 10-year-old cat Cooper and my 7½-year-old dog Buddy, a feisty Shih Tzu-Pekingese mix – occasionally test my patience, I wouldn’t trade either of them for a robotic pet.
Cooper remains a typical cat, which means he’s adept at becoming my pal precisely when he wants his nightly tuna snack, but he’s also a source of comfort when he climbs on my lap and lets me pet him.
He’s also discovered some new tricks, such as climbing onto a shelf in our family room and pushing a vase of artificial flowers onto the floor. But despite that, he’s much cuter than any AI version of him could ever be.
Buddy also remains a beloved member of our family, even though his latest shtick is really annoying: he insists on barking every time I get up from the couch. But he’s also pretty good at barking to let me know that the mail carrier, trash truck, delivery people or lawn maintenance crews have arrived.
So, I think I’ll keep them – and continue to keep Alexa and her AI ilk out of my home.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.