"You’ve been red-pilled," said colleague Maurits Martijn to me last year. We were together at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona. It turned out to be the world championship bullshit bingo. Quadruple helices, that kind of stuff.
"I’ve been what-ed?" I asked. Maurits explained to me the scene from The Matrix in which protagonist Neo is given the choice between a blue and a red pill. If he takes the blue pill, he lives peacefully – but ignorantly; if he takes the red one, he’ll see the true world, the rotten system in which he is living.
Now I’ve always had an optimistic – some might call it naive – worldview (maybe that’s why I forgot all about the Matrix pills). When people did nasty things, it was mainly because they were just foolish. They meant well. Something to do with virtues and stuff.
But working in journalism puts such a worldview to the test. Last year, for my book, I was immersed in the practices of the tobacco industry. In Golden Holocaust, historian Robert Proctor describes how tobacco manufacturers lied to smokers for decades about the consequences of cigarettes. For their own benefit, they were prepared to step over the corpses.
I had often been moved by things I wrote about, but never so physically. It literally made me nauseous.
The tricks of the tobacco industry, I read in Merchants of Doubt by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, were later used by the fossil industry to deny climate change. And now, in Barcelona, I heard about companies that were mistreating citizens.
Take Sidewalk Toronto, a project where Google – ahum, Alphabet – wanted to build a neighbourhood "from the internet up". After great promises about privacy, the company turned out not to stick to what was agreed upon.
Ann Cavoukian, a distinguished privacy expert, decided to resign as advisor to the project. "I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
There is also enough to be cynical about when it comes to artificial intelligence. China is using facial recognition against the Uighurs. Google is involved in the development of autonomous weapons. And companies are using bullshit AI systems to select the right employee.
I think it’s important to write about such matters, but I also get discouraged sometimes. And I’m afraid you are too. That’s why, for a change, I want to talk about what’s going well in the field of artificial intelligence. Things that do not make you cynical but hopeful. Like all the interesting people I’ve spoken to over the past few months.
From them, I learned something new every time, and I was ignited by their enthusiasm. Gaël Varoquaux, for example, one of the founders of scikit-learn, an accessible machine-learning toolbox. He worked on "data science for the many, not the mighty".
I am also encouraged by the attention paid to ethics and artificial intelligence, for example within the European Union and at Oxford University. The cynic in me immediately thinks "lip service!" Still, let’s hope we get more humane technology now that the philosophers are getting involved.
Finally, there are inspiring examples of AI. Take Zipline, a start-up that delivers blood with drones to hospitals in central and eastern Africa. In doing so, they regularly save lives. Such technology not only gives hope – it’s also just really cool.
And what about you?
I want to make a hopeful piece about artificial intelligence. Together with you. That’s why I wonder: What makes you hopeful when it comes to artificial intelligence?
It’d be great if you responded in the contributions to this newsletter, so everyone can enjoy your input. But if you are not a member or if you prefer one-to-one contact, you can of course also send an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I’ll summarise your reactions in a future article. I’m looking forward to your ideas. Thank you very much in advance!
Before you go ...
A great cure for cynicism: Bob Ross. I came across this video in the (Dutch) newsletter of colleague Tamar Stelling. A smile is guaranteed (and a stone called Harold).