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Is AI a friend or foe?

As I write this article so much is going on with regards to AI and how "it" (let's make it clear this from the beginning, it is IT, not "he or she") will affect our daily lives and how we will interact with other human beings.

The topic of AI in our lives has been on my radar since the early 2000s when I first met Sophia, known as "most advanced human-like robot" at the time. And to be honest, as much as for some Sophia, and everything she represented was exciting, I personally didn't get "warm" with her…

Years have passed since I got to know Sophia, which was something far from my reality. However, right now it seems that we could be at the very beginning of an "AI Revolution", where AIs are becoming part of our lives at a steady and fast pace. Where many of the experts on the topic are in alert mode and shouting out - "Hold your horses people! We need to have some regulations in place before embracing and welcoming AIs at this pace in our lives".

Conversely, the general public, the lay people like you and me, seem to be extremely excited about how much an AI can make their daily tasks easier and, why not, having one AI as a companion.

My friend, Ian Gibbs, is the Learnability Man. Ian's work revolves around everything related to learning skills, and how to make the learning process more effective and seamless. Recently he posted an article - AI and The Future of Learning and Development - which triggered on me the desire to have a conversation about the topic of AI with him and to get further into his, and mine, impressions about how AIs will affect human interactions and communication with others.

I invited Ian to have "tapas" with me while having this conversation. "Tapas" , an intrinsic eating habit in Spanish culture, invites sharing. Sharing of the food, and sharing conversations. Therefore, a Tapas place is an ideal environment for good talks. We met at El Mercat in Barcelona, an absolutely gorgeous tapas restaurant located in the Eixample Dreta (right expansion) of the modern expansion of Barcelona initiated in the middle of the XIX century.

Before getting started we ordered two "cañas" (draft beers). The problem with tapas is that you are spoiled by choice, and it takes a while to agree what to choose to share.

Once that was done, we started our conversation.

For starters, I could see and hear that Ian was very excited about the benefits AI can bring to our learning abilities, such as tailor-made learning resources, how AI can create immersive learning experiences that simulate real-world scenarios or even not-so-real worlds, in other words, how AI can make our lives easier by searching and filtering information and delivering it with a considerable quality, in a timeframe that we, humans, can not even imagine.

And then he asked me, "How would you like to be tutored by Johnny Depp dressed in a leotard? or Britney Spears wearing a Polar bear costume?"


I couldn't tell if it was the question itself that shocked me, or his choices of avatars… 😱 Thank God our tapas arrived and I had some time to digest such a question.

I absolutely LOVE the berejenas con miel (aubergines with honey) they serve at El Mercat. I've tried it in several other places but theirs is unbeatable. Ian favourite choice was the classical patatas bravas (baked potatoes edges with spicy tomato sauce and garlic sauce), plus, as I've been in this place several times, I took the lead to suggest the other tapas to share: the tacos de entrecot con pimientos del padrón (sirloin cubes with small green peppers), sticks the pollo (battered fried chicken strips), a portion of cigalas (crayfish), and Ian asked some pan con tomàquet (the typical catalán bread with tomato).

Well, now, let's get back to Ian's question… Would I like to be tutored by an avatar? Even considering more interesting and inspiring "personas" than Ian's choice… I'm not really sure. In principle, if I answer from my gut feeling, I would say no. Too creepy! (I always think about Sophia when I think about robots…😱) However, I was trying to give it a second thought, a more rational thought considering the benefits of such experience (my inner voice was still screaming, NO…) and I asked Ian…"didn't we have enough with the pandemic where we lost the personal contact and touch with others? Now we will replace humans with humanoids?"...

I do understand using machines for mechanical tasks, but, having humanoids interacting with humans on a daily basis, being part of their lives as a family member, instead of having the real human being, is something still beyond my comfort zone. Would I like that? Would I connect with the machine at a personal level? Would I start interacting with "it" as a HE or SHE? Would I start feeling emotionally connected to 'it"?

Then Ian asked me, "would you think that people would bond emotionally with their avatars to the point of falling in love with them?" YES, I DO! And maybe this is why this disturbs me so much! At this point the Cast Away movie, with Tom Hanks, came into my mind. Do you remember Wilson? If you haven't watched the movie, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), after an aeroplane accident finds himself alone on a desert island. The whole movie goes around his survival and his trials to leave the island to find a civilization. During this process he "befriends a coconut", and he calls it/him, Wilson. The point is, when he loses Wilson, in the middle of the ocean when he is trying to find land somewhere, he goes crazy! And so do we, the audience. We all got attached to Wilson, the coconut. Wilson became part of the story, we all wanted to save Wilson. And Wilson disappeared in the ocean! That was painful!!! I felt the pain. I cried!!!!

So… if we can go absolutely insane and suffer because a coconut called Wilson, which is in a movie, is not even close to us physically, what would happen to our sanity when we have humanoids living with us, and sharing our precious and important moments?

I don't know about you, but all of this gives me creepy chills…

As much as I loved StarTrek and was fond of Dr. Spock, I don't think I'm ready to share my life with a humanoid at this level, at least right now.

Thank God I could soothe my uneasiness with the subject by comforting myself with some of the tacos de entrecot in front of me. Something real and enjoyable. Well, not only me, Ian seemed to be enjoying himself pretty much while devouring the patatas bravas. It was time for the second round of cañas.

It was clear throughout the conversation that Ian and I were experiencing the AI Revolution from different angles. We both understood each other's point of view, however, he is all for it and I'm quite reticent…

He is looking into the overall benefits of having AIs in our learning processes by bringing more information and possibilities in front of us, such as personalised learning, immersive learning experiences that simulate real-world scenarios, having the AI-systems to analyse your written responses to assignments and provide feedback on grammar, punctuation, style and other areas of writing, providing a more accurate and reliable feedback, while saving time… I know, the positives are innumerous.

As Ian mentioned in his article

"It can create a revision lesson based on what you’ve just been doing. Imagine having a meeting with your team and then getting a summary of how you did from your AI tutor with a couple of brush up activities?

And of course, expect better accessibility for people with disabilities such as natural language processing algorithms which can be used to create voice-enabled learning tools for visually impaired students."

Yes, fine, I get it. It is clear that Ian is envisioning the technological benefits (which I'm not denying) however, from my side, I am "curious" (I don't want to say "concern" because I don't have enough information and knowledge to be concerned about it), about the transformation, the development of human relations once AIs are living together with us.

Everything I do professionally is under the umbrella of "conscious communication". It is about improving relationships and getting the job done more effectively by using clear and effective communication. It is about building trust by aligning our message with our values and beliefs, it is about bringing humans close to each other to work better together and build healthier environments.

With all the benefits that the connectivity of the internet have given to the world and to us in the past decades, we also know how much the connected world of internet has disconnected us, how distant we feel from each other, how much information overload has overwhelmed us, how much the virtual world and its fake news have been misleading people and manipulating their behaviour, how much false ideals of people constantly happy, living amazing lives, leading successful lives, with no problems whatsoever, have been leading many youngsters to anxiety related illnesses, depression, including mental health.. And the list goes on.

I'm not an expert on the AI Revolution, and far from it, however, I'm curious because I understand it will change dramatically the way we live and interact with others. I have been listening and reading what the experts are saying, and their concerns. They too have their high dose of excitement with all the positive changes and benefits, however, as far as I can see, right now, despite all benefits there are serious concerns amongst the ones who really know what is going on in this matter. There is a strong call to action urging governments to deploy governmental officers, who are dealing with regulations, to learn in-depth about "what is going on", to learn and understand what kind of regulations will need to be in place once we have humanoids becoming the closest companions of our children, the ones passing on knowledge to all of us and telling us what to do. Will those super intelligent machines always have in mind the same goals that we do? Will they be really doing everything that is for our best interest?

It seems to me that AIs are coming up too fast into our lives, and although the ones behind such "revolution" are telling us that AIs will be with us in the co-pilot seat, to give us a hand, the experts are saying that they are coming to be in the driving seat.

By this time Ian and I had nothing else to say. We asked for our coffees. I ordered a carajillo de Baileys (espresso with Baileys, if you love coffee and Baileys, go for it) and Ian a cortado (an espresso with a shot of milk). There is a lot going on right now, there are many questions without answers. Most of the possible answers are in fact speculations, nobody can have a definitive answer.

From my side, I'll continue being curious and observant. Ian and I have agreed to continue this conversation in the near future.

Tulia 🌹

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