With workshops well underway and the first Forum behind us, the Academy is up and running for another year, and what pleasure it is to be able to meet again face to face. Zoom has been, and continues to be a blessing in many ways, but if my New Yorker group is typical, the in-person sessions are far more spontaneous and engaging. As a building, Tartu seems to have a variety of quirks that will require getting used to, but already people seem to be feeling comfortable there. Its classrooms are brighter and more intimate than those at Knox. Hopefully accessibility issues will soon be resolved and Covid will remain at bay.
With all this good news in mind, it is easier to acknowledge that a number of the items in this issue of the AQR touch on a future that is disorienting and possibly disturbing. Not that the issue was planned that way, and not that readers are likely to be plunged into depths of despair. All of the authors have a sane and balanced perspective on the world, but their contributions do invite us to consider uncertainties that lie ahead.
Ron Miller has given us two pieces – his usual column on technology, which in this case describes how our private faces have become a public resource; and a review of a recent book which projects the impact of Artificial Intelligence twenty years into the future. Tanya Long is back with another insightful book review, this one of Yuval Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which also addresses the impact of technological disruption in addition to nuclear war and ecological disaster. In the ‘Opinions’ section, her warning about the growing intolerance of “woke” culture speaks to the seemingly inexorable spread of radical social polarization. Inspired by the slam poem, “Raging for Aging,” in the last issue, Sandra Acker offers her own light-hearted but sobering take on the perils of growing old.
We do have two pieces with a focus on the past: Janet Broadley’s charming recollections of her introduction to volunteering, which also capture something of Toronto’s cultural history; and Karena de Souza’s fascinating interview with Rene Laukat. They are a good place to start.
Keith Walden, editor
My Introduction to Volunteering
In my preteen years I studied acting and mime at Dora Mavor Moore’s New Play Society on Bloor Street in Toronto. Dora shared some troubling news with us students: the studio was experiencing some financial struggles and might have to close. I was crestfallen. I loved my life and friends at the New Play Society. I resolved to do something to help.
I hatched a master plan. I would volunteer in my lunch and afternoon time to raise money with a tin in my hand, hope in my heart, trembling legs, dry mouth and a frozen smile on my face. I knocked on doors in my Lawrence Park neighborhood in North Toronto. When the doors were gingerly opened by the occupants, I tried to give some explanation for my presence on their porches. The listeners looked a little puzzled but proved kind, giving me small donations. I figured it all helped towards “the great cause.”
On the day of my next acting class, I nervously presented the cash to Dora Mavor Moore in her office. She looked bewildered and wanted to know how I had raised the money. She may have been deeply embarrassed, seeing my actions on her behalf as akin to begging. She was probably hoping for a large parental donation to help with the soaring costs of running an established acting school. However, she responded empathetically, albeit with a touch of skepticism, nodding her appreciation and studying me as if for the first time. Out of the blue, she said to me, kindly but matter of factly, “Janet, you are too sensitive to be an actress!”
Sixty years later, I ask myself, Isn’t sensitivity one of the essential qualities it takes to be an actress? Don’t you have to get under the skin of a character you are playing? Don’t you have to find at least one trait, quirk, attribute to base your performance on? At the time, though, in Dora’s office in 1961, I was shocked.
The tables had turned and now I was the bewildered recipient of unexpected news. Her words stung. Confusion took hold of me. I froze. I did not understand the implied connection, the unforeseen U-turn. Just a few days before, I had courageously raised money for her acting school, and now she was telling me she didn’t think I had a future life in the acting world! The suggestion landed with a thud, a burning brick heaved right out of left field through a plate glass window. I would have been happy with a simple thank you for my efforts. I certainly wasn’t expecting the crushing of my future hopes and dreams!
At that moment, I was traumatized. In hindsight, I realize that I have always had difficulties with short-term memory, which causes problems learning lines. Moreover, I am a domestic creature. I like my home base with its creature comforts too much to be a trouper. Gigging on the road through winter storms, staying in boarding houses, possibly closing shows after only one week – these were not for me. I discovered other local outlets to happily fulfill my need for expression, allowing me to return home and sleep in my own comfy bed most nights.
In my mid-twenties I studied acting under Marrie Mumford at her Front Street east studio in Toronto. Somehow, we started talking about Dora and the comment she had made to me years before. Marrie was furious that a teacher would make such a sweeping statement to such a young student. As if to encourage me, she shared the story of a very famous sensitive ingénue who would perform her role each night, almost collapse on stage after her curtain calls and then run out the stage door and down the street weeping uncontrollably. The young actress had poured her whole heart and soul into her performance yet still felt that she was inadequate. I realized that was not how I wanted to end up. Instead, after my performances, I wanted to chill out with other cast members for a few beers, laughs and food.
I stored both Dora’s and Marrie’s comments in my mental filing cabinet for future review and carried on performing for fun over my lifetime. Their opinions helped me to find my own creative niche and I am forever thankful to both of them for this.
Meet a Member - Rene Laukat
“Whom should I interview next?” I asked the Communications Committee. As one, they recommended Rene Laukat.
If you have been on one of the Academy Walks, there is a good chance you will recognize her and had already struck up a conversation with her.
How did you discover the Academy?
Karena: Hi Rene. I have heard so many wonderful things about you. Let me start this interview as I have all the others in the series: Tell me – how did you discover the Academy?
Rene: I found myself unexpectedly retired at the age of 53. I was searching for something cerebral to complement the many walks I found myself doing on the Toronto trails. My husband noticed an ad for the Academy in the Toronto Star during late spring. When I called, the semesters were completed, but there were informal walks taking place. I joined the first one of High Park, led by Val Kahner. The rest is history!
This was a quarter of a century ago! And ALLTO has been a part of my life ever since.
Karena: How does ALLTO fit into your life?
Rene: I had an empty calendar and I was able to fill it with ALLTO events. There were so many fascinating workshops to participate in and committees needing volunteers.
The wonderful thing about the Academy is the opportunity to expand your circle of friends. I soon found myself organizing spin-off events such as attending films and dining outings.
In recent years, particularly during the pandemic, the various hiking groups in Toronto have taken more of my time. Besides the Academy Walks, they include Toronto Bruce Trail Club, Toronto Senior Hiking Club where I’m on the executive, VIP Hikes and several smaller ad hoc groups.
Karena: With so many years of Academy membership, do you have experiences that stand out as memorable? Do you facilitate any workshops?
Rene: OMG! So many, one in particular. I was researching for a presentation in my Conflict Resolutions class. I had selected Haida Gwaii First Nations Battle for Sovereignty as my topic and discovered the most fascinating facts about colonization and the Catholic Church’s hand in this. I had always wondered who gave the Europeans the authority to take over lands they discovered that were already inhabited. The answer was in the 1452 Papal Bull of Pope Alexander VI, a.k.a. The Doctrine of Discovery. I was shocked that this information was never taught in the schools. Learning this kind of information is one of the fascinations of the Academy.
From the start of my Academy journey, I’ve attended the workshop now known as Events of the Fortnight (which I co-facilitate with Ken Snelson). This class always has active discussion.
I have enjoyed attending, and in some years co-facilitating, Contemporary Film. I currently run a break-out group, Rene’s Movie Matinees. Memoirs: Reading and Writing has been one of the intriguing ones. Feeding off my interest in history and travel, I ran UNESCO World Heritage Sites a few years ago. I’m grateful to the late Mark Abbott for the Opera workshop, which fostered a greater appreciation for that art form and inspired numerous trips to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC.
Karena: Can you share a little more about yourself, Rene? First, please tell me more about your name.
Rene: My full name is Eva Renate Laukat, but my sisters and I were always called by our second names. I have since shortened it to Rene.
I came to Canada as a child. I was born during WW2 in the town of Jugnaten in the former East Prussia bordering Lithuania. My father was a pastor and my mother a community nurse, and I was one of four sisters, all born during the war.
I celebrated my fourth birthday in a refugee camp while the Russian front headed through East Prussia. After six months on a harrowing refugee trek where many lives were lost, the Red Cross settled us on a farming estate in northern Germany, close to the border with Denmark. When I was 11, our family emigrated to Canada. We settled into Toronto’s Cabbagetown, living in cramped quarters in various rooming houses. There were many of these beautiful large homes, filled with European refugees.
Karena: You must have seen many changes to Toronto over your lifetime. Please share some with us.
Rene: The Toronto of today is unrecognizable from the city I arrived in. It was then known as Toronto the Good. It was a quiet, somewhat backward - very WASP, apart from the influx of post-war immigrants. Very religious. On Sunday, the only thing open was church. Riding the trains on Sunday after the Yonge subway was installed in 1954, one saw the trains were near empty except for the churchgoers in their Sunday finery. I have fond memories of the Easter Parades and the CNE.
Karena: Tell me more about your life here.
Rene: I attended Winchester Public School in Cabbagetown and graduated with a $25 certificate for being a “most promising student.” It was enough to purchase all my books for Jarvis Collegiate but I my sisters and I had to leave school early because of our parents’ fragile economic situation.
I spent weeks pounding the pavement with a grade 10 certification and a few marketable commercial skills. I broke into tears of relief when offered a job as a Financial Statement Typist in the Group Insurance Department of the Manufacturer’s Life Insurance HQ on Bloor St. east. After two years of typing and filing, and completing several of their training courses, I realized that this was no way to live.
I embarked on an intensive night school program to obtain my Senior Matriculation, during which I was hired in a clerical position in the Personnel Department of the Federal Government’s Public Works Department. Two years later, with my high school graduation certificate in hand, I set off on a six-month journey through Europe. On my return I was hired by the Province of Ontario’s Central Agency initially as Personnel Clerk, then rose through the ranks to Senior Human Resources Policy Officer in Management Board of Cabinet. After 31 years of service, I accepted an offer of immediate retirement from the newly installed NDP government.
I was only 53. My opportunity to travel expanded. I’ve travelled to most European countries and done 26 cruises including Alaska, Antarctica, the Baltic and many trans-Atlantic crossings.
It is also when my life of volunteerism started: socializer of cats at the Humane Society, friendly visitor at Old Age Homes, information contact on the Osteoporosis Canada 1-800 line and various hiking clubs.
During the pandemic, I undertook a hiking program, initially walking on my own. When gatherings were again permitted, I set up the Fairweather hiking group with friends from various pre-COVID hiking clubs. Over the past two years, I have led over 200 hikes and participated in another 100, covering a total of 3,000 km. These initiatives after the isolation and lack of activity truly saved my life and the lives and sanity of many participants.
Karena: Hiking runs as a line all through your life story.
Rene: My warmest memories are of forest walks I would take with my dad in north Germany while we were still refugees. I would often walk home from work in Queens Park to our homes in north Toronto, then St. Clair/Yonge and Riverdale. My niece recently designed and gifted me a terrific T-shirt, “Hiking is cheaper than Therapy.” I think it IS therapy.
About Academy Walks
Karena: I’ll close by asking how you got involved with the Walks program?
Rene: The walks were already in existence when I joined and I find them an absolute pleasure.
They are a great way to communicate with Academy members while strolling through some of our historic communities and nature. At the end of the walk, we share a meal (and many beverages!). You are able to take workshop conversations further, discover the complexity of the person who sat next to you, and learn more about the wonderful members in our community.
I think I am best known for co-ordinating, planning and promoting the Academy Walks Program for 12 years, since taken over by Ken Snelson and our accomplished President, John Weatherburn. I have also turned into an informal documenter of the walks and often post a brief write-up with photos.
Since I joined the Academy, I have been a staunch recruiter for its activities. When there is hesitation – particularly with the idea of making presentations - I suggest they start with the Events workshop, as they get to engage in polite, informed discussion with a diverse group of curious minds.
Karena de Souza
Who Owns Your Face? - Privacy Issues
You do, but not necessarily the images.
Abigail Robinson – “Flour of the Family”
On December 15, 1890, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren published an article titled “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review. This became the basis for the development of privacy law in the US. In 1900 the first privacy case was filed in NY State. In Rochester NY, Franklin Mills produced some 25,000 lithographic advertising posters (new technology at the time) with the headline “Flour of the Family,” using a portrait of teenaged Abigail Robinson. It had been obtained from a photo studio and used without her consent. Robinson claimed to be greatly humiliated by the jeers of people who recognized her face. She was treated by a physician for severe nervous shock and confined to bed. Hence, a lawsuit was filed against Franklin Mills and Rochester Folding Box Company for creating the ad. After an initial win and reversal on appeal, the law was quickly changed in 1903 in NY State followed shortly by most of the other states.
The Lena Image
In 1972, some engineers working on image digitization wanted something more interesting than the standard TV test images being used. They used a part of the centerfold in the November issue of Playboy magazine featuring Lena Soderberg.
Not known to Lena (and, for many years, Playboy), the photo quickly became the single most widely used picture in image-processing research. She was one of the first pictures uploaded to the Internet (then ARPANET). Lena was used to develop the now ubiquitous JPEG image format, a compression scheme that allows complex digital files to transfer between devices and appear on smartphones. The Lena image became a standard that was used for decades. Playboy decided not to ask for compensation; Lena, although originally asking for the image to be withdrawn, later was a featured speaker and presented awards at an International Conference on Image Processing. Lena became a celebrity but what about the image? To quote Jeff Seideman, a former president of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, “When you use a picture like that for so long, it’s not a person anymore; it’s just pixels.”
2019: “The Reasonable Expectation of Privacy”
A Canadian schoolteacher secretly recorded his female students’ breasts with a camera pen while they were involved in normal school activities. He was charged with pornography; the case was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Jarvis, 2019, SCC 10. The decision provided clarity on the criminal offence of voyeurism but more significantly weighed in on the definition of a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Here is a direct quote from the key paragraphs: “…privacy in our bodies is fundamentally connected to human dignity and autonomy and cannot be easily eroded. We do not surrender our privacy interests and our right not to be surveilled merely by walking out our front door each morning…the fact that technologies now exist allowing others to invade our privacy in previously unimaginable ways does not mean that our privacy expectations upon entering public spaces have been obliterated.”
So, we have the right not to be surveilled upon entering public spaces. Let’s see now, how many cameras are there in Toronto - in hospitals, at airports, etc.? What about those police body cams? If we enter a private space, i.e. a retail establishment, apparently video surveillance is allowed.
Facebook maintains the largest database of photographs. By some estimates it is approximately 100 billion images. When you upload an image to Facebook, although you own it, by agreeing to the Terms of Service, you have given Facebook a non-exclusive worldwide licence to use your images in any way they choose. Also, they can issue sub-licences for use to third parties as they determine without needing your approval. It is non-exclusive, so you can upload the same images to other platforms such as Instagram.
Facebook encourages others who have taken photos where you appear to “Tag” them with your name. You must be quite knowledgeable about privacy settings in Facebook to disallow this. Also, Facebook will present a suggestion to the “tagger” for your name. This is gleaned from their database and AI- assisted image processing. It’s a very popular feature of Facebook since it eliminates “tagging” labour.
In 2015, police in Baltimore used social media tracking on people protesting the death of Freddie Gray. Facial recognition helped police identify protestors with outstanding warrants, and they arrested them directly from the crowds.
How does facial recognition work? Basically, a digital camera captures your image and its software can “frame” your face. Other system software computes defining geometric characteristics such as the distance between your eyes, the depth of your eye sockets, the distance from forehead to chin, the shape of your cheekbones and the contour of the lips, ears and chin. Up to 49 of these numbers are used to create your “faceprint.” Law enforcement agencies can then use your “faceprint” to scan massive image data bases for a match. This is very similar to the use of fingerprint data. Do you appear in these data bases? It is highly likely. Do you have government-issued photo IDs? Do you take selfies? What happens to the images taken when you use an ATM anywhere in the world? (Refer back to the paragraph on “the reasonable expectation of privacy,” at least for Canada.)
If facial recognition were extremely accurate for every case, we would have no cause for concern. However, the rate of false positives is very high, particularly for brown-skinned individuals. Independent testing in various jurisdictions has led to public outcry such that there is a movement to ban the use of image recognition by police departments and government law enforcement agencies (except of course in China). The police may not use it, but there are hundreds of applications that, unbeknownst to us, use this technology every day.
Finally, returning to the question of who owns your face? You do. As you own your body, you own your face. Decisions about what your face looks like are private personal decisions - to shave or not, to wear makeup or not, to bare the face or not, to wear a mask or even to use the Instagram cute “filters” on social media - are yours alone. But an image that you posted years ago on social media may suddenly appear in an ad. Unfortunately, you can do nothing about this. Maybe just enjoy the fame as Lena did.
How is my heart?
Am I falling apart?
Blood pressure alarm,
Threatens some harm.
I’m no longer young,
There’s a spot on my lung,
Watch and wait on the scan,
So goes the plan.
My sugar is high,
It’s making me cry,
Sight not so tip top,
Need cataract op.
In matters dental,
I’m going mental,
My tooth needs extraction,
It’s quite a distraction.
My legs start to cramp,
When I turn out the lamp,
My feet feel sore,
When I head out the door.
Too much indigestion,
Now what was that question?
I can’t quite hear,
Without aids in my ear.
My hands are shaking
My head is aching,
My back is hurting,
It’s all disconcerting.
I’ve not gone to heaven,
And here on the earth,
There’s still much of worth.
Friends, music and books,
(Stories with crooks),
A family that cares,
How Nana fares.
In 2021 Marie Henein published her memoir Nothing But the Truth, covering her upbringing and her life as a defence lawyer. Henein became notorious for successfully defending Jian Ghomeshi against crimes of sexual assault. Many people, including feminists, chastised her for this supposed betrayal of women, ignoring the fact that two pillars of the Canadian justice system are the principles that the accused are innocent until proven guilty and that they deserve a fair trial, presumably including a vigorous defence. A high school book club in Toronto wanted to discuss the book; the Toronto District School Board said no – that it would send a bad message to “the little girls.”
At the same time the board vetoed The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad because it would promote Islamophobia, seemingly unaware that the Canadian government considers the Islamic State to be a terrorist organization. Both these decisions were made before anyone had read either book. The TDSB apologized, citing misunderstanding and misinformation. Censorship would be a better characterization.
Egerton Ryerson was a great Torontonian by any standard, forward looking and inclusive. He was a beacon of educational reform, celebrated as the founder of the Ontario public school system, the first public education system in the world, and for lobbying the provincial government to make schooling a universal right. Nevertheless, the statue erected in his honour was vandalized, then torn down. Ryerson University was renamed Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). The charge? That he was the architect of the residential school system. Ryerson was in fact a great friend of the Indigenous; he lived for a while with the Ojibwa and learned their language. To blame Ryerson for residential schools makes as much sense as blaming Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, the discoverers of nuclear fission, for Hiroshima.
On July 14, 2021, Toronto City Council voted to rename Dundas Street, on the grounds that Henry Dundas, after whom it is named, played a role in delaying the abolition of the slave trade in Britain by suggesting adding the word “gradually” to the proposed Abolition Act. In fact, in the late 1790s it would have been difficult to get any abolition act through Parliament. Dundas, an abolitionist, thought that adding gradually would make it more palatable and therefore more likely to succeed. The House of Lords defeated the bill anyway.
Leena Manimekalai, a fine arts student studying in Canada, is facing prosecution for blasphemy under the laws of India. As an academic project for TMU, she created a short documentary Kaali, related to the topic of multiculturalism in Canada. The film shows the Hindu goddess Kaali at a Pride festival, smoking and waving the LGBTQ+ flag. When the poster for the film went viral, the High Commissioner of India asked Canadian authorities and event organizers to censor the film. TMU complied. They withdrew the film from the program, apologized for including it and withheld Manimekalai’s honorarium. The Aga Khan Museum, who had scheduled a screening of the film, also cancelled and apologized. Academic and artistic freedom, as well as rights of free expression and religious belief, have all been compromised.
These are all, to my mind, examples of “woke” culture gone off the rails. Note that most of them involve academic institutions, supposedly bastions of free speech and vigorous intellectual debate. This is a time of cancel culture. Rather than to debate, discuss or highlight aspects of the argument, the response is to “cancel” the individual, regardless of the good work they have done. At some point the extreme left (the “woke”) and the extreme right meet; they are equally intolerant, dogmatic, careless of fact and repressive. These positions are not good for democracy.
I am sure that you have your own examples of woke extremism, or perhaps you disagree with my argument. We would be delighted to hear from you. Please send your comments to email@example.com.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah Harari has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Oxford and lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specializing in world history. His previous books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, became international bestsellers. 21 Lessons has been equally successful. Harari’s books have sold over 65 million copies in 65 languages and he is considered by many to be one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals today.
Sapiens looked to the past for the development of the human species, Homo Deus to the future. 21 Lessons has it’s focus squarely on the present and near future. In a February, 2020 interview in The New Yorker magazine, Harari says that nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption are the major challenges before us. Fittingly, he starts the book with the section on the technological challenge. In The New Yorker interview he also says that “those who will control the world in the twenty-first century are those who will control data.” The merger of biotech, infotech and increasingly superior AI could threaten our core values of liberty and equality if this capability falls into the wrong hands. We already see a very small example of this kind of control in the use of algorithms to track our use of the internet and social media, resulting in the ability to target ads specifically to an individual’s interests and thereby influence our buying habits. In any case, AI threatens not only our jobs but the possible disappearance of homo sapiens altogether. Interestingly, Harari does not seem unduly concerned about this possibility. Again, in The New Yorker, he says, “The sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of.”
I found myself wondering if Harari was being unnecessarily pessimistic and guilty of fear- mongering. But given our unwillingness to deal with the climate crisis and the real possibility of nuclear war, perhaps he is just being realistic. This book was written before Covid, before the January 6 attack on the U.S capitol, and before Russia invaded Ukraine. At this point Harari seems prophetic in his concerns.
In subsequent sections, Harari tackles such pressing issues as nationalism, religion, immigration, terrorism, war and loss of faith in anything we used to call truth. Does Harari have any answers? Regarding education, he believes that schools should not be focussing on information and predetermined skills since the likelihood is that these will be out of date by the time the student might need to use them. Instead educators should be teaching critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. These are the skills that will be needed in a world where everything is constantly changing; they are also the skills needed to tackle the crises facing us. Harari also harkens back to the ancient precept – “Know thyself.” He is a firm believer in meditation, practising two hours a day and going on yearly month-long retreats.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century is not a perfect book. It has been criticized for glibness and oversimplification and for recycling ideas from his previous work. But these faults are not surprising given that he is examining so many pressing issues in a little over 300 pages. He demonstrates an extraordinary intellectual reach and an ability to express complicated ideas with humour and appealing references to pop culture. There is little doubt that it will make you think.
AI: Ten Visions for Our Future
By Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Quifan
This is a non-fiction book with embedded imaginative stories responsible for a large portion of its 450 pages. If you know just a little about AI and would like a “primer” by a respected expert in the field, then this book is for you. If you have been following developments in AI, perhaps in our recent academy workshops, this book is not for you. While the explanatory sections written by Kai-Fu are excellent, the fictional stories written by Chen originally in Chinese and translated are of poor quality and seem to illustrate forced scenarios with characters that are hard to empathize with.
Nevertheless, if I had been aware of the book last summer, I would have suggested it as a good basis for an academy workshop since it is thought provoking and quite accessible. In it you will find discussion of seven application areas for AI and scenarios set in Mumbai, Nigeria, Korea, Shanghai, Tokyo, Sri Lanka, Iceland, San Francisco, Qatar and Australia.
Kai-Fu, who was educated in the US, started early in AI with a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University, then taught at Berkley and worked for Apple, Microsoft and Google. He was the CEO of Google China for 10 years. Chen worked at Google but turned to writing about 10 years ago and became a well-known writer of science fiction in China.
One of Kai-Fu’s reasons for writing yet another book about AI was to try to counter the negative impression of AI we are getting in the press with its frequent warnings and the popular fears about the robotic future. There is an attempt to highlight the positive benefits of AI in each of the stories; however, he does raise some cautions in the explanations following the stories. Both Kai-Fu and Chen live and work in Beijing and Shanghai so there are no stories about how the authoritarian government is using its strict control of the Internet and applying AI to track and control its population. None of the stories are as dystopian as you will experience in the cable network series “Dark Mirror,” known for its criticism of the effects of technology. In my view, on reflection, some of the stories describe situations I would not like to live in, particularly the very first in the book titled “Golden Elephant.” Here, in India an insurance company controls the lives of its clients by issuing behavioural nudges through uses of cell apps. It is a mystery to me how the Indian population can be brainwashed into using this.
Kai-Fu and Chen have tried to project current developments in AI 20 years into the future. They claim that they are 80% assured. Take this with a large grain of salt. Perhaps the “Golden Elephant” is a proxy for what is happening in China?
The layout of the book is quite unusual. Each story starts with a short note by Kai-Fu to set the scene and indicate what aspect of AI will be illustrated. Kai-Fu then adds after each story several pages of quite informative explanation. The way I read the book was to use my e-reader for Kai-Fu’s notes and explanations and an audio device (cell phone) to listen to the audio version of Chen’s stories. Because of the poor quality of the stories, listening to the narration was more enjoyable than reading the sometimes tedious and predictable text. It is best to read a chapter or two each day, in any order, and no, you can’t just read the stories or the explanations. Sadly, I did not have a hardcopy of my own that I could mark up with notes, but I did re-read sections in a PDF version on my computer that I could mark up.
One of the complaints I have with the non-fiction text is it is hard to find anything. There are few subheadings, just a handful of diagrams, no foot notes, no mathematics, no discussion of the utility function and no index. This is not a book to use as a textbook as it is intended for a general audience.
I have a few other criticisms. There is no good definition of AI. Kai-Fu’s first sentence is adequate but circular. “Artificial Intelligence is software and hardware capable of performing tasks that require human intelligence.” He then follows with: “AI is the elucidation of the human learning process, the quantification of the human thinking process, and the understanding of what makes intelligence possible.” Very hopeful, but totally wrong! He does go on to give a good review of the evolution of AI developments but does not explicitly correct his previous statement, written 40 years earlier.
Another issue I have is that neither Kai-Fu nor Chen has any real background in economics so the last chapter on “Plenitude” and other discussions of universal basic income in Chapter 8, “Job Saviour,” are not that credible. But then again not many economists forecast anything with accuracy.
My favourite chapter is Chapter 4, titled “Contactless Love.” It was written during the start of the Covid 19 pandemic and seems to be an extreme projection of China’s original response. In it the heroine Chen Nan has been living in self-imposed isolation in an apartment in Shanghai and falls in love remotely with Garcia, a game developer in Brazil. Garcia rescues Chen from her isolation by using a VR game. The action takes place in Shanghai. Some intriguing technology: Chen’s apartment is serviced by specialized robots for each domestic task who have their own service elevator; people have a wearable biosensor called a biosensor membrane attached to their wrists that displays all their essential vitals including vaccination status. This is read visually by all the ubiquitous cameras in the city; new corona viruses appear every year; and a new dangerous one has been released from melting permafrost in the Artic (a consequence of global warming). Kai -Fu weighs in on AI in healthcare, virtual reality and robotics in the following analysis.
In summary, this book is not easy reading but, in spite of my criticisms, I think the effort will be rewarded and will help you to appreciate some of the AI controversies.
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