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Context


From Ambridge to Armageddon via Ancient Rome, this month’s podcast in The Business of Pleasure puts the eagerly anticipated UFC Title Clash ‘Humans v AI’ into ‘CONTEXT’


Most weeks I write comic ‘Fan Fiction’ based on events portrayed in a radio soap located in and around Ambridge, a fictional agricultural village.


For reference, I am a Londoner who grew up during the swinging sixties under the street lights and traffic noise of the Fulham Road. It’s not just that I can’t abide the quiet and darkness of the countryside, I am physically allergic to grass, hay, cows, sheep, horses ...and close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business.


The programme that I listen to every week, ‘The Archers,’ is the ‘oldest soap’ in the world. It has been running 72 years, and still has an audience of around five million faithful listeners.


Once again, for reference, my great-grandfather was born in the swinging 1860s. Think the American Civil War, Bismarck invading Denmark, and the Second Great Reform Act which gave some working class males in the UK, like my great grandfather, the vote for the first time.


In my great-grandfather’s house, all conversation ceased for fifteen minutes a day, so he could listen to The Archers uninterrupted. Thanks to this religiously observed ritual, I was exposed to the programme, in utero, and have been attuned to the familiar “Dum-dy, Dum-dy, Dum-dy-dum, Dum-dy, Dum-dy, Dum-dum…” long before I saw the light of day (or, more accurately, the streetlights of SW6).

Now it is the solemn duty of each successive generations to rebel against the customs of their forebears, and my great grandfather’s son, my grandfather, duly rebelled. In his house there were twice-weekly, thirty-minute, periods of enforced silence as he, his wife and their son (my father) watched ‘Coronation Street,’ the world’s longest running TV soap.


To the best of my knowledge, neither my grandfather, grandmother, or father ever clapped eyes on the actual brick back-to-backs of real-life Manchester. They didn’t have to. They weren’t remotely interested in them. The soap could have been set in the Sahara instead of Salford as far as they were concerned. The important thing to them is that that knew the context in which each successive episode was set, were familiar with all the programme’s notable characters and events, and could contribute to the debate at work or over games of darts in the Jolly Brewers.


For refence: Our word ‘context’ is derived from the Latin ‘contextus’ combining ‘texere’, to weave, with ‘con’ together.


For reference. The Romans ‘weaved together’ the greatest empire the ancient world had seen, consisting of millions of people drawn from disparate tribes and nations spread across Europe, Asia and Africa, by uniting them under the context of the Latin language.


(For further reference, whenever I preface something with ‘for reference’ I am, well, adding context.)



The Romans’ Daily News, or ‘acta diurna’, were carved into metal or stone in the forum.

Today we have ‘rolling’ news, broadcast 24/7 through traditional and social media, and, in this context, both print ‘Newspapers,’ and radio and TV ‘News Programmes’ are increasingly less about the business of delivering news than providing context for the day’s news. But here they have serious competition; the new ‘newskids’ on the block, single-mindedly dedicated to providing context content, aka Bloggers and Podcasters. As audiences, we engage with these sources because, rightly or wrongly, we feel them to be more independent, more authoritative voices than the more mainstream media. Better able to give us the ‘inside story’ on what’s happening in our world, without (or with less) fear or favour. But there’s another context here. The social context. Just like the soap-followers before them (and in parallel with them) my friends and family now meet regularly in pubs, and WhatsApp groups, to discuss the latest editions of popular blogs and podcasts. Debating the unique takes they may provide on subjects like politics and the arts, and commenting on the day-to-day dilemmas of long-running characters …David Archer and Ken Barlow exchanged for Trump and Johnson, Attwood and Tarantino.


My latest (and now, as I write, penultimate) podcast in this Business of Pleasure series was entitled ‘Are You A Robot?.’ Originally penned (and voiced) in 2019, it attempts to map, among other things, how the development of Artificial Intelligence has mirrored spurts of growth in our understanding of human intelligence. I thought it would be good to give it a second airing because of the current controversy raging over the possible impact of Chat GPT and OpenAI …most notably with two Turing Award Winners foreseeing the end of the Human Race as we know it, and a third calling their prophecies ‘merde!’ I can see both points of view. In the one camp you have Hinton and Bengio maintaining that the machines will soon overtake the capabilities to their creators, and could potentially be lethally weaponised by ‘bad actors (let’s not forget that one of Hinton’s colleagues at google was fired for claiming that the firm’s language technology was sentient). In the other camp you have Yann LeCun, the third member of the 2018 Turing-Gong-Triumvirate, dismissing the belated alarm calls as ‘a projection of human nature on machines.’ Personally, and currently, I lean towards the latter point of view.


And purely on the basis of …context


The human context starts around 3.7 billion years ago, with the first elementary life forms, well, forming, on Earth (or maybe falling to Earth in meteor showers).


Our direct ancestors then joined the party around six million years ago, with our species popping in about 200,000 years back. ‘Modern’ man, as defined by art, music, religion, etc. has been around a mere 70 to 80,000 years.


For reference, the first 40,000 of those ‘70 to 80,000’ summers were sufficient for us to eliminate and/or assimilate all our near relatives and permanently eradicate their deeds and dilemmas from the Daily News.


More importantly, in the present context, our species succeeded in adapting its multi-million/multi-billion-year-old machinery, called ‘brains’, to encode enormous, and enormously complex, external (and internal) data sets into instantly accessible and actionable chunks called feelings.


Now I’m not suggesting that Artificial Intelligence will never be able to make the leap to Artificial Consciousness, equipped with (or driven by) Artificial Feelings. Especially if quantum computing receives a similar kind of stimulus to that which the 80’s gaming craze contributed to computer speeds (Super Mario be praised!) but such a day will not dawn without dangers…

Just imagine.


You’re on deadline for a potentially career-ending (or career-launching) piece of work.


You power up your computer and read, to your horror:


Error Message 1950: This service has been suspended for the next fifteen minutes’


As over the speakers,


And through the static,


You can just make out a feint but familiar ditty, barely discernible amongst the white noise:


“Dum-dy, Dum-dy, Dum-dy-dum, Dum-dy, Dum-dy, Dum-dum…”




Copyright David Thomas 2023

All Rights Reserved





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