an argument in favor of artificial intelligence

I think, therefore I am obsolete

What a week.

I’m writing this on Canada Day — July 1, 2016. One week ago, the world awoke to discover that the British people had voted conclusively to leave the EU. The decision triggered convulsions of all kinds — social, economic, political — in Britain and abroad, and will continue to do so for years to come.

One of the side-effects is a forced re-think of current affairs. Suddenly, all sorts of once-unthinkable things are now on the table. The impossible is, it seems, possible after all.

For example: if the British people could make the colossal blunder of voting themselves out of Europe, it’s not inconceivable that the American electorate could put you-know-who into the White House.


Ever since The Donald announced his candidacy, I’ve watched his progress with growing disbelief, all the while assuring myself that the American public would never, ever, ever actually elect him. Reason would prevail. Intelligence would win out over ignorance. Common sense would triumph over delusional self-interest. (One columnist called the Clinton/Trump face-off America’s ultimate IQ Test.)

Well, that didn’t happen in Britain. It might not in the USA.

I’m by no means the only person to see disturbing parallels between the success of the Leavers and the rise of Trump Nation. Both campaigns targeted a deeply dissatisfied segment of the population, wooed them with simplistic solutions to complex problems and lied egregiously to make their case.

They also appealed to the very worst of human instincts. Intolerance. Racism. Distrust. The Economist summarizes the whole issue very effectively: the Brexiteers’ entire campaign was a rejection of the liberal values that the western world has embraced for the last half century or so.

Ultimately, what they really succeeded in doing was to persuade people to value ignorance over evidence. As Michael Gove — a high-ranking cabinet minister in the British government and leading Brexit campaigner — said: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts.’ (The quote heard round the world, commented one journo.) If that isn’t an invitation to ignorance, I don’t know what is. Don’t listen to them — they’re informed and educated — what could they know? The whole campaign could have come straight out of the playbook of the Flat Earth Society. The other leading Brexiteers (Johnson and Farage, both of whom have jumped ship in the wake of the decision) were just as guilty.

As dishonest and manipulative as they were, Trump’s worse. There’s no ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ at work in his campaign; his rhetoric is as subtle as a sledgehammer. But after last week, my unshakable conviction that he could never become president has actually started to quiver a little bit. I am actually beginning to worry about the inmates taking over the asylum.

Part of the reason is that I know some people this sort of thing appeals to, and I know how easily they are led to make bad decisions. I’m personally acquainted with a man who fits the mold perfectly. Mid 50’s, white, thrice divorced and, at late middle age, not a lot to show for a lifetime of working at middling level service jobs. He is bitter, angry — and proudly ignorant. A high school dropout, he denigrates education as if it were an indication of some fatal weakness of character. (‘Poorly educated’ is one of the polling segments Trump does particularly well with. “I love the poorly educated,” he gushed at one rally.) He’s the kind of guy who could easily be persuaded by Trumpian tropes.

You just kind of hope that he’s not in the majority.

But where does that leave us who believe otherwise?

Well, on that score, Canada is not a bad place to be. We went through a similar experience in our last general election. Like so many things Canadian, ours was a watered down version of other situations, but essentially it pitted a fear-mongering backward-looking right-wing white boys club against a more hopeful, inclusive centre left. It was possibly the only general election in my experience that reduced me to nail-biting anxiety, but fortunately the latter kicked the former’s collective ass and suddenly, to borrow Ronald Reagan’s marvelous phrase, it felt like morning in Canada. After a campaign that encouraged us to rat on neighbours we didn’t like (to an official government tip line, no less) we have moved on — or back — to the Canada I always believed in: an open, tolerant, welcome, inclusive and meritocratic society. Sure, it needs work in some areas, but I truly believe we are setting something of a standard in these very troubled times. Other countries would do well to look at us, and copy.

But will they? A pessimist at heart, I doubt it. It’s not just the US and the UK. All over the world, politicians are furiously fomenting hate, driving wedges into their populaces and encouraging people to turn on their neighbours, all in the name of political gain. Rational, thoughtful discourse is pushed aside in favour of mindless, atavistic prejudice. Intelligence loses, ignorance wins.

Will Canada’s lonely, virtuous voice be heard? Again, I doubt it. Which is why I am somewhat encouraged to read of radical, rapid advancements in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI.

With the real thing in such short and diminishing supply, it may be our only hope.

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