‘AI will tear us apart…’ ― Financial Times
My thoughts for this article were largely shaped by two recent Financial Times articles on technology and sustainability, a duo of themes increasingly dominating conversations these days.
‘AI will tear us apart’ screamed at me in strident upper case, white type on a flat black background from the cover of the FT weekend supplement, clearly echoing Joy Division’s 1980 pop anthem ‘Love will tear us apart’. If Ian Curtis’s 43-year-old tune captured the weariness and alienation of his generation, what could we read into Ian Hogarth’s long article on artificial intelligence.
Regarding the advances of AI, Hogarth, an AI innovator himself, strikes notes of extreme caution with a definite underlying current of despair. His hopes around the future of AI, in ways, are as pessimistic as Curtis’s are about love. In 2012, Hogarth shows, AI had developed ‘superhuman’ capabilities at chess, and could recognise images at ‘beginner human’ level. By 2022, now drawing on data from the entire internet, AI has become ‘superhuman’ at several games, including go, chess and poker, and is capable of passing the US Medical Licence Exam!
Worryingly, AI has already developed complex capabilities like power-seeking and the ability to deceive humans. Crucially, its expertise is developing at a much faster rate than its alignment with human values. The Holy Grail for AI, God-like AI, or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is now clearly in sight and that, according to Hogarth, ‘could usher in the obsolescence or destruction of the human race’.
AI technology has already been deployed in society for a decade or more but has only recently started to impact outside of its prior niche space. AI’s ChatGPT is still a fascinating circus trick for many of us, but it already has radical implications for marketing, communications, promotions, blogging, journalism, and other creative pursuits. Should I spend half a day writing this article, for example, when ChatGPT can knock one off in 5 minutes – maybe without the Joy Division reference, in fairness? More fundamentally, there’s the existential threat to knowledge; what it is (versus data, for instance), how we share it and how we evaluate and access its origins.
A dream for Europe
Andrew Martin’s A dream of Europe (Financial Times, Sat 15 April/Sun 16 April 2023) was the other article that caught my eye. Martin’s long-form article is about the night train, for years lost in the doldrums of low-cost air travel but now riding the crest of the sustainability wave.
Just eight years ago, in 2015, Deutsche Bahn abandoned its City Night Line sleepers, regarded as the backbone of the European network. Martin published a book in the same year entitled Night Trains; The Rise & Fall of the Sleeper. He tried to ride the Orient Express on its traditional route from Paris to Istanbul but by then the journey terminated in Strasbourg.
However, no sooner had we pronounced the death of this typical feature of European rail travel than its rebirth has started to materialise, phoenix-like from its very own ashes. Dutch entrepreneur Elmer van Buuren will launch his Good Night Train with service between Berlin and Brussels via Amsterdam in 2023, adding, in 2025, service between Amsterdam and Barcelona. Needless to say, his website highlights how sleeper trains are ‘better for the earth’.
Other night routes already launched, or soon to be launched, include Stuttgart to Venice, and Stockholm to Hamburg. Interesting for the purposes of this article are the luxury sleepers over a network radiating from Paris, shortly to be launched by start-up, Midnight Trains. The Italy-originating Orient Express La Dolce Vita will also launch in 2024 using refurbished vintage Wagon-Lits carriages.
Martin links the resurgence of night trains to the Flygskam or Flight Shame movement and references a new term Tågskryt (Train Brag) as further evidence of the clear connection between the rebirth of sleeper trains and the present zeitgeist. He quotes environmentalist John Stewart, ‘there’s a whole new attitude compared to ten years ago’ and flags the drafting of the 2019 European Green Deal as a watershed moment.
The implications for travel in general are obvious. With sleeper trains, residents of Berlin can happily pitch up in Amsterdam without fear of backlash or recrimination. Maybe it’s the dawn of a new era of ‘slow’ travel to match the massively popular ‘slow’ food movement that mushroomed up in Northern Italy in the mid-eighties? If so, put me on that train!
Clearly a brave new world is opening up before us, a world of limitless potential but also of uncertainty and grave danger. Our hubristic, unchecked, giddy progress as humans has left us with an unmitigated climate disaster on our hands. Let’s now apply our creative expertise to this and start doing way more than merely paying attention to single use plastics. And when it comes to AI, let’s proceed with extreme caution starting by paying close attention to what’s incontrovertible, indispensable and irreplaceable: our beautiful but very fragile humanity.