I Am Not a Robot ... Yet

Our technology has left our humanity in the dust

With my diminishing human brain I can still recall the day when I bought my first computer -- an Apple 2C -- which I convinced my wife would be a swell way to keep track of our recipes, as well as my LPs. (Remember those?)

Among the software that we bought to accompany our new contraption was the program, "Newsroom," which I could use to design my own newspaper. I played with it and then my young daughter played with it. And life seemed good, like one of those Apple smiles that appeared like a startup sunrise.

Soon afterward, though, my real-life editing job was disrupted when pagination entered the lexicon, and the newsroom where I worked. We'd been using a dedicated word-processing system for writing stories since shortly after I entered as a reporter, of course, and I appreciated "cutting and pasting" my stories without having to use scissors or paste pots.But I remember sitting at the brand new Harris pagination system back in 1986 and thinking,"This is like my 'Newsroom' program .... yet much less enjoyable than using a ruler and scaling wheel.

I was beginning to feel like a cog in someone else's machine, and in a very human way, I rebelled, returning to the very human craft of writing.

(Not everyone was so lucky.)

One of the stories I wrote was based on an interview with an professor of artificial intelligence. I remember asking him, after he ran through the litany of hardly imaginable possibilities that lay ahead, where all of that would leave morons like me. His response was a cold blank stare that told me all that I needed to know.

As I logged in with my password to our then-new newsroom computer each day back in that distant past, I recalled the 25-digit code that my editor back in the pre-computer reporting days of 1976 devised for us to type in the upper-right corner of our newsprint page as we typed (yes, typed) the start of each article we'd write, to accustom us to the scanning that would be part of the ritual he imagined would be just ahead when we converted to the computers to come. Fortunately, before the year was out, the newspaper purchased the dedicated word processing system that would instead allow us to type directy into a comptuter we nicknamed HAL, with a nod to Stanley Kubrick.

Then our phones began to automate, so that we were forever choosing which numeral to select to climb the tree in search of an ever-more-elusive human. ("Please pay attention to the following menu as some of our options may have changed.") "All our representatives are assisting other customers," we're assured, as the Muzak Moments repeat that mindless tune again and again so that the lone remaining human can try to keep up 'til Automated Annie takes full control.

Gradually, it seemed like all of our own options had become more limited, so that we were awaiting prompts from robotic voices everywhere, with the admonition that this call might be monitored, that we were under surveillance, that our selections were being tracked so that our preferences could be made available (read "sold") to a host of other cybersolicitors. It was all in the name of making our lives, if we remembered them, easier. And it was all done with our approval, when we'd clicked one of those mandatory "agree" buttons.

And then they remembered us, no matter what site we clicked on, badgering us that we might still desire that item we searched for a week, a month, ago.

And constantly sending us messages instructing us to "like" something it's just showed us, or asking for an immediate reaction to, say, a roll of toilet paper we've just bought, or suggesting yet another something that it thinks we should see. (And then a reminder that it sent us a suggestion that we haven't responded to yet.)

Remember the friendly gas station attendant who used to offer to wash our windows, and maybe even check our oil, while filling our gas tank? And the gabby cashier who used to comment on our groceries and tell us about the recipe she liked to make with what we were buying? Gone are those characters that were oh-so Twentieth Century.

When my supermarket started offering self-checkout robots, allegedly to speed my exit from those brick-and-mortar stores I insisted on shopping at, I knew I was being manipulated to help corporat cut staff, but then when my pharmacy all but eliminated human cashiers entirely, I began longing for even those fleeting homo sapiens interactions.

Ultimately, so far, my computer began stymieing reality by challenging my personalized answers to secret questions, like my mother's maiden name, or the name of the school I'd attended. Then I knew things had gone way too far, and personalized answers were not good enough for AI.

AI began insisting that I might be the robot, requiring me to deceipher fuzzy code nonsense or showing it that I knew which photo squares included images of Studebakers .... and then questioning my choices. I was reduced to having to attest, under penalty if I commit perjury, that "I am not a robot." here I began to doubt that I hadn't crossed the robotic rubicon.

And things started getting scary. Call me Android, but I have feelings too. At least I think I still do.


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