Artificial Intelligence and What It Might Mean for Your Future

It is strange times we live in when being compared to something mechanical is a compliment.


( One of the ways you can tell a bespoke suit is to look--though do try to be casual about it--at the way the buttons are sewn. If they’re absolutely uniform and straight, then the suit was made by machines. A hand-tailored suit should be perfectly cut and the seams should be straight, but on little details like the buttons, the hand-finished nature remains evident.

This is a good thing. Not just because bespoke suits are an order of magnitude more expensive than their factory-made off-the-peg counterparts, but because we still find that human touch reassuring. It should go without saying that we’re talking about proper bespoke, and not a ham-fisted tailor in a back alley of Kowloon, in which case you’ll be lucky if the buttons even line up correctly, or if the suit remotely fits.

The words “hand-crafted” have joined “artisanal” and “sustainable” as buzzwords of the moment, “AI”, or artificial intelligence, is at the same time feared and revered. I’ve often said that I’ll start worrying about AI the day that Greenbelt mall parking’s automatic ticket dispenser doesn’t need someone to press the button and hand the card to you--I’m something of an AI skeptic. Or, as many people feel about global warming, it’s real, but it’s a first world problem.

I’m not actually skeptical that artificial intelligence works, but I believe that fears that it will make humans redundant are greatly exaggerated. What I do fear is that we will hold humans up to machine standards: I’ve heard people say, of a particularly prodigious athlete: “That guy is a machine!” in a tone of awe. It is strange times we live in when being compared to something mechanical is a compliment.

There was a time when I thought that restaurants would take over home dining completely. By sheer economies of scale, it makes sense for food to be prepared on a large scale rather than to have individual households source ingredients, take up time and labor in the kitchen that could be spent on work or leisure, and expend resources on fuel to cook food, wash dishes and cutlery, and oneselves, after the act of cooking. The average home-cooked meal could be made to the same standard in a communal kitchen with industrial equipment supervised by semi-skilled workers for cheaper--essentially, food made by robots.

But the developed world became obsessed with natural ingredients, artisanal produce, chefs that they could put a name to, and a sudden desire to cook--work that had been drudgery for housewives or relegated to servants. The Slow Food movement emerged as a response to the ubiquity of cheap fast food chains. Food, it seemed, was too close to our identity as humans for it to be industrialized. The rise of cheap food brought with it its corollaries, the superstar chef and the zealous amateur home chef. The industrial revolution created a breed of craftsmen who worked with the metal, rather than against it.

One of the things I’ve learned to do, for instance, is perform basic repairs on a fountain pen. I can re-sac a lever-filler like the early Parkers, reassemble a piston filler such as a Montblanc or Pelikan, and smooth a scratchy nib with a light abrasive or widen the slit with a brass shim to increase the ink flow. But the real fountain-pen restorers and nibsmiths are craftsmen of the highest order. They have to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the different kinds of pens produced over the last hundred or so years and how they are put together, and be able to replicate the way the industrial object was made; to satisfy a collector, the pen shouldn’t just work, in a MacGyver way, but work the way it was intended to.

The same goes for clock and watch restorers, who have to put together several hundred parts that were made by machine and assembled by hand. They used to be ubiquitous along Recto, but these days there are only two or three independent ones (that is, not employed by one of the large watch companies) that the watch community trusts, and wait is correspondingly long. In the world of high-end audio there are only a handful of people I work with, who can balance the engineering knowledge with a ear for good sound, and a love for music.

These craftsmen all emerged out of a change in technology. People stopped using fountain pens when ballpoint pens were invented, so fountain pens became a luxury or niche item, so the craft of restoring a pen, rather than just replacing parts, was born. Mechanical watches also went that way after the quartz crisis in the 1970s, so the job of a watchmaker became much more rarified and complicated. And in the era of surface-mount components and wave soldering, rigging together circuits by hand became nothing short of an art form.

Today, in Greenhills, row after row of young men are bent over temperature-controlled soldering guns and magnifying loupes, repairing cracked mobile phone screens and swapping out circuit boards. Some of the more skilled can even desolder and transplant integrated circuit chips. It is difficult to conceive, but the day will come when their work will become obsolete and will either be consigned to history, or will morph into an elite form of craftsmanship.

What AI is certain to replace in the fields I know well are spell-checking (which it already has, for the most part) and copy-editing. Software already exists that can write short news stories about fires or generate weather reports. Will it ever write poetry or moral essays? If AI reaches that point, then we probably will have bigger things to worry about than whether I get to keep my job or not. Having said that, I would like to certify that this piece was authentically hand-written by a human from sustainable sources, checked by a natural free-range editor, and published--by hand, errors and all.


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