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  • Writer's pictureAltered State

TALK 3 - HAMSTERS, STAR WARS AND EPISTEMIC NIHILISM.

MON 29TH APRIL


Hal 9000 (2001)

We all remember our AI moment zero. For some it might be when Hal refuses to open the pod bay doors and let crewman Dave back onboard in Kubrick’s prescient 2001 A Space Odyssey. For me it was when social media first connected my digital footfall and started bombarding me with ads for minutae related to The Clash and the West Indian cricket team of the 1980s. But for many the Gavin Williamson COVID exam result algorithm fiasco was the dawning; pivotal life chance decision making based on existing multi faceted bias, anyone?


Our host Rudy Millard welcomed a strong and eloquent panel to the Hen and Chicken on April 24th. Nigel Toon of Bristol AI behemoth Graphcore, dystopian author Heather Child and Bristol Uni Digital Futures deep thinker Colin Gavaghan’s core message was that AI has to work for society and that it can be force for good. Their message was clear: this is not a cerebral battle of the boffins, society must become involved and shape the direction and application of this remarkable new frontier of tech.


Nigel was passionate about the potential of AI to reverse the wealth inequality that’s being growing since the 1980s and the significant uptick for health outcomes here and in the developing world. Heather was reassuring that whilst AI might knock out bespoke fiction (you like hamsters? You like Star Wars? So hey presto here they are together in your holiday read) her skills were safe in that our ability to emote and be nuanced won’t ever be replaced by an AI Philip K Dick.


Via the online safety act and the recent TUC bill, Colin talked through some progress with concerns around harmful content, deepfakes and the necessary transparency the workplace should demand when algorithms might be deployed on key matters of employment or benefit distribution. There is less legislative progress protecting election integrity (yes, Donald, actual election integrity). The concept of pre bunking by telling society to beware seemed somewhat weak when confronting the coming tsunami of fake news. Once it’s out there, it’s out there and the deepfake horse has well and truly bolted. Colin warned of a state where people may not believe anything is real, he called it epistemic nihilism and we don’t want a whole bunch of that.


The toolbox is the final act of each of our talks. The panel provide the room with their most instructive advice and there was unanimity: we have to get a hand on the tiller of this tech. Colin advised us not to be passive recipients, but to be activist as we are when we demand politicians legislate. Nigel’s vision was to enable it as a force for good and remember that if it acts poorly, it’s the human bad actor involvement, not the machine. Heather felt we must decide if we want to be servile or strategic.


It was an eloquent evening, three great speakers communicated complex technical information in an understandable manner and our podcast will have the highlights of the talk distilled down to a half hour. All three panelists have books out, Nigel’s ‘How AI Thinks Heather’s ‘Everything About You’ amongst many published works, and Colin contributed to ‘A Citizen’s Guide To Artificial Intelligence’.


The evening was not without humour, in a vignette not unlike a Nick Cave lyric, Colin told us of a recent date night in which he and his partner asked AI to compose their obituaries. Somewhat less funny is the realisation that Gavin Wiliamson’s reward for colossal failure was a knighthood.



We spun our (at a stretch) themed playlist on the night which can be heard here and featured:


Koyaanisqatsi Philip Glass

Strict Machine Goldfrapp

Are Friends Electric? Tubeway Army

Computer Love Kraftwerk

Paranoid Android Radiohead

Technologic Daft Punk

Together In Electric Dreams (tune!) Human League

Spirits In The Material World The Police

Welcome To The Machine Pink Floyd

1984 Eurythmics

The Future Leonard Cohen

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It REM



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