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The Book Report

April 2024 - Artificial Intelligence
By Joan Cucinotta
Posted: 2024-05-03T14:56:17Z

From the April meeting and discussion about Artificial Intelligence

For April’s meeting, we Book Club members endeavored to educate ourselves on the topic of A.I., artificial intelligence. Here is some of what we learned about this ever-developing new technology.

First of all, “A.I.” is itself a broad word with many aspects. Essentially, it refers to a field of research in computer science to develop programs and software that can make intelligent machines. Even though we may not fully understand it, we have all been using A.I. in some form for many years --- Google Search, Siri, Alexa, recommendation systems within Netflix, Amazon, and most recently ChatGBT. Essentially, something run with A.I. has been fed a massive amount of data and then produces an answer to a requested directive. A breakdown of some important terms in A.I. can be found here

While we may be comfortable with its power to select a film or a book to suit our specific tastes, A.I. is now being used in an astonishing number of unimaginable ways. It can predict cancer from a mammogram better than a human; lethal autonomous  AI-equipped drones can be deployed without a human pulling the trigger; it can even analyze a baseball batter’s performance and produce better insights to refine the player’s techniques. Here in Pittsburgh, you may have seen those cute little food delivery robots bringing Grubhub food to Pitt students in Oakland. But despite the charming aspects,  there are some very dangerous applications of A.I. at present. For example, it can also produce deep-fake videos to sway voters in an election campaign, an activity that is an existential danger to democracy. 

Because A.I. seems to be the future of any and everything humans do, big spenders are throwing enormous amounts of money into building research centers, data centers, and all their necessary infrastructure. Saudi Arabia is investing billions in A.I. technology and development. The Facebook company Meta alone plans to spend 40 billion. But along with privacy and disinformation issues that A.I. development raises is the environmental impact of the massive data centers which require enormous amounts of water. 

Many in our group see A.I. as an unsettling new entry in the dizzying race to build new technologies and have registered alarm at its unknown consequences and potential for misuse. Yet most of us are cautiously optimistic as long as proper guardrails are in place. Like any new technology, A.I needs human oversight geared toward positive human outcomes and must outpace the race toward profiteering by corporations as well as power grabbing by unscrupulous politicians manipulating elections. 

While you can read about A.I. almost daily in any prominent newspaper, here are a few sources that might be helpful in learning more about it. There is a PBS Series called “Crash Course: Artificial Intelligence, and an interesting article “Among the A. I. Doomsayers” by Andrew Marantz. There is also the highly Informative League webinar by Eileen Olmstead and Ruth Quint about the connections between A.I. and the ballot box. Two recommended books are Burn Book: A Tech Love Story by Kara Swisher about the high tech community and Radically Human: How New Technology Is Transforming Business and Shaping Our Future by Paul Daugherty and H. James Wilson 

And by the way, how can you be sure who actually wrote this article? Joan Cucinotta or ChatGBT?


For our next meeting, we are reading Barbara McQuade’s Attack from Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America (in which she has a wonderful chapter on the use of tech and A.I. on elections). We will meet at the Sixth Presbyterian Church at 1688 Murray Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15217 (at the corner of Murray and Forbes in Squirrel Hill. Entrance is on Murray Ave.). May 16, 10:30 A.M.