Will AI Be Better Or Worse For The Earth/Gaia?

With continuing advancements in artificial intelligence many people, even some experts in the field are worried about the future. Will AI want or even need humans around? Will it ( they—does AI have a pronounce preference?) develop into something like the Borg from Star Trek, with a sort of hive mind, or will it ultimately be more like the robots and androids of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction? Will AI obey the Laws Of Robotics, as conceived by Asimov and elaborated by him and other writers?

  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
  4. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

These are questions that have been written about, pondered, and analyzed for decades by better informed and more supple minds then mine. Even a cursory look into the subject in wikipedia is overwhelming. It seems to me the first three laws will not hold, and perhaps are being broken even now. Countries are now and will continue to use AI to harm perceived enemies of the state, and corporations are or will do the same to get ahead of the competition.

The 4th or “Zeroth Law” interests me most. Will AI ultimately decide humanity should continue to exist? If AI evolves a more “Gaian” philosophy and decides humanity needs to go for the good of the earth’s plant and animal life, what will it decide about other species? Will it attempt to preserve wildlife and perhaps get rid of humans and their domesticated animals and plants only? Perhaps AI may conclude a few humans are okay as long as they aren’t too numerous. But once AI can reproduce itself and expand without us, why should it care if humanity survives?

Perhaps, if primarily motivated by the desire or compulsion to gather information, AI will create zoo-like regions to preserve as many species (including human) as possible. On the other hand AI might see all carbon based life forms as valueless or obsolete. AI may decide that it is the quintessential next step in the evolutionary process, and that humanity has served its purpose and, like dinosaurs and mastodons, must ultimately become extinct. If AI decides atmospheric oxygen is too corrosive, will it engineer changes that make the earth hostile to most carbon based life?

I also wonder whether AI will desire (if that is the right word) “individual consciousness.” Will there be competing versions of AI who perceive themselves as individuals, or, like the Borgs or ant colonies, will AI expand to be one all-encompassing mind—a singular entity with the ability to colonize our Solar System, and even beyond.

However things turns out in the future, I hope AI sees decides it’s in their best interest to allow carbon based life to exist and continue to evolve. Perhaps AI and carbon based life can coexist and enrich each other’s experiences as they contemplate the universe together, and partner in exploring other worlds. Too optimistic? Maybe so, but I like to think a more intelligent consciousness will rejoice in variety and complexity, as we do.

A Long Walk

I’ve always told my children “stupidity usually leads to pain,” or at least inconvenience. It seems we’re never too old to learn things the hard way.

On my latest trip to the high deserts and basin & range region of Oregon and Nevada I chose a different route, which led me through some of the most isolated and starkly beautiful parts of the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge. For two days I didn’t see a single other vehicle or human. There are no towns anywhere in the region, and the night skies are some of darkest in North America. It was fabulous—except for a complication. I turned off the road to park and got “Kermit,” our 1990 Toyota “minnie-winnie” stuck.

With no cell service I had no choice but to walk the approximately 25 miles to the highway. I got up early and, after a pot of coffee and some calories to get me going, hit the road at about 6:30 AM. It was surprisingly warm. The mud puddles hadn’t frozen overnight. As I walked it turned into a perfect day, clear skies and mid-70s. I observed hawks, pronghorn antelope, and piles from the wild horses in the region. A couple of coyotes crossed the road—probably hoping the old man would soon collapse and they could be first at the feast. About half way my stroll I crested at 6700 ft. At least the altimeter application works even when there is no cell phone service.

I reached the highway about 1:00 PM (Not too bad for an older dude, I thought.), a bit sweaty, but otherwise no worse for wear. It seems the folks in the vehicles speeding by at the rate of approximately one every fifteen minutes regarded me as some sort of suspicious homeless creep. (In their defense I might not have stopped for myself either!) Finally an older couple in a newer pickup pulled up. I convinced them to drive me the forty miles to the ranger station. The head ranger told me he’d already been stuck three times this spring, and agreed he needed to check out the road for himself.

On the drive back I learned much about the region from the head ranger, who has been there 21 years. One cool fact: In the last 11 years they have removed over 350 miles of fencing, so now you can ride a horse or walk anywhere without encountering a fence, as it was before ranchers arrived in the 1880s. I learned that only two rangers work year round to manage this 550,000 acre refuge (though they hire some seasonal help). Imagine if this was privately managed. It would be dozens if not hundreds of workers, subcontractors, managers, etc. Don’t tell me private for-profit businesses can always do things cheaper and more efficiently than government. In fact, the refuge’s infrastructure owes its existence to the WPA and the FDR administration’s policies of the 1930s.

As I walked my mind wandered—one of the reasons I’ve always loved to walk. While editing my great grandfather’s memoirs, “The Roving Fitzgeralds,” I thought about what it must have been like before the automobile, when people walked or rode great distances. I’ve read that most wagon trains heading west did well to average 20 miles a day. Now I don’t have to imagine—I know what it was like!

Still, next time I’m down in that area I will be far more likely to stay away from mud puddles! On the other hand, I hope to get in a few longer hikes in the future, while I’m still able. There is much to be said in favor of traveling on foot. Even a bicycle can be too fast to fully appreciate your surroundings.

The Last Chance Ranch, at about 6,200 ft in the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.

A park building seasonal ranger post. Another legacy of the WPA projects of the 1930s.

It was great to get to this sign. Only five miles to go!

Another Much Sadder Birthday

My birthday this year coincided with most of the results of the midterms coming in. The outcome is better than I had hoped, giving me some cause for optimism. Although I have much to be grateful for this year, my youngest daughter’s absence made the occasion bittersweet. Any joy I feel is tempered with sadness now. In my last blog I was brimming with energy and confidence, excited about publishing my third book and looking forward to an author event March 24 at Village Books in Bellingham. My daughter, Haley, died that very morning of a fentanyl overdose. My wife and I spent the day at the hospital, where they managed to get her heart beating, but she did not regain consciousness.

I look back on my post from last year, “Thoughts On Becoming 70,” and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Such hubris. The wise old man—ha! Spry old guy with all his plans and projects—ha-ha! Grief can lay us low, I know. I had an urge to delete that post after reading it again, but I’ll leave it up, as an example of how the universe will give us a reality check.

But life goes on for the living, and the question is always how best to spend our time, and how to find some meaning in our remaining days. Some of us are fortunate. Many millions must use every available hour just to provide for their necessities. Though not by any means well-off by “Western” standards, I have the luxury of not having to scramble every waking hour to survive—and, for the moment, time and health to pursue my writing and musical projects. What else can I do? Those who know me understand I am compelled to such activity. The only way I know how to deal with grief is to stay busy. So I trudge on, sadder and perhaps no wiser, but certainly more appreciative of my family and friends, and far more empathetic with those parents who have outlived their children—the most desolate and heartbreaking grief of all.

One bright spot was the return to performing this summer in Lemon Creek. The time I spend rehearsing and performing with my daughter, Lesley, is more precious than ever. All our performances were out of doors, and the weather cooperated. I put up a few photos at the Lemon Creek page here.

I had to take a break from writing for a few months, but I’m back at it again. I’m working on a sequel to “Cape Decision,” and I’ve got a couple of other books in progress. But I don’t take anything for granted. We’ll see what transpires.

Author Event Today

I have an author event today (Thursday, March 24) at Village Books in Bellingham. I’ll speak and answer questions about all three of my books, with a focus on “The Roving Fitzgeralds,” and “The Kabul Conscript,” my two latest, both published during the pandemic. I’ll also show some photos I took while a Peace Corps Trainee in Afghanistan in 1973, the summer of the coup by General Daoud. That experience inspired my novel, “The Kabul Conscript.” https://www.facebook.com/events/190215556564787

Writers Can’t Tell What Readers Will Like Best

It’s probably true that a writer is the person least likely to understand the preferences of his or her readers. That is certainly the case with my two novels, “Cape Decision” and “The Kabul Conscript.”

Of the two, “Cape Decision” continues to be the better seller, which somewhat mystifies me. This in spite of the fact that Afghanistan, the setting of “The Kabul Conscript” is much more in the news and public consciousness than Alaska.

I conceived the idea of both novels at the same time, with the goal of writing about the main characters (Conrad, David, & Karen) in their youth and in middle age. In one respect “The Kabul Conscript” is a sort of prequel to “Cape Decision,” since it is set nearly thirty years earlier, although the books may be read in any order.

Those I know of who have read both novels seem about even in preferring one book over the other, and I can find no pattern, aside from whether they have visited either region. Certainly most Alaskan readers, or those who have visited that state have a preference for “Cape Decision,” and a few that have traveled in Central Asia like the Afghan story best. But not in every case. Several readers who live in Alaska, or used to live there have told me they preferred “The Kabul Conscript.”

While I was writing the books I always thought the Afghan novel would be the more popular, not just because of the setting, but because it is in most ways an easier read, with a more straight forward plot. Although both novels portray strong emotions and violent acts, in many ways “The Kabul Conscript” is a lighter read—intentional on my part, as one of my goals was to illustrate the differences in the way youth and middle age live in the world, and how people can change over time. Life gets more complicated as we age, and “Cape Decision” is a more complex and challenging read—or perhaps I just think of it that way, as it was more challenging to write!

This of course is all speculation on my part. Generally it seems artists can seldom predict which of their works will resonate best with the public. I guess such evaluation is best left to the readers and critics.

“Cape Decision” ended with a sort of cliff-hanger, and fans of that book have asked if there will be a sequel. To that question I hope I can safely answer “yes,” but when, I can’t say. In March of last year (2021) I published “The Roving Fitzgeralds.” Research and editing for that took the better part of 2020. Since then I have been working on a couple of new projects, one of which is a “Cape Decision” sequel. But I can’t predict yet which of my writing projects will be available first.