In James Bay Cree mythology and legends, one of the recurring characters that comes up is the story of the trickster or wandering spirit. This a mysterious character that wanders around our world and takes on any form it wishes. It could be a man, a woman, a child, an Elder, or calls itself an older brother or a younger sibling. Sometimes it’s an animal, a bird or a tiny creature. It could just be a spirit that blows in the wind, that speaks from the forest or inhabits the earth or stones or water. Sometimes it’s a monster and sometimes it is a helpful being that saves people. Sometimes it is all intelligent, wise and all knowing and other times, it is as silly as child or as clumsy as a clown. In many of the stories, it could be a saviour or a bringer of death and destruction. We call him or her or it many things – as a spirit / god like being we have stories of Cheekapesh or Nanabush, and as a monster we call it Ochaskeechoo or Windigo.
I like to imagine the dawning of Artificial Intelligence or AI as this legendary trickster stepping into our world again. Instead of wandering into our world through the water, the trees or as an animal, it is visiting us through the digital medium.
Artificial Intelligence software and systems are now actively affecting our everyday lives in many ways whether we would like to admit it or not. Much of the effects of AI can be felt every time we log on to our favourite social media app on our phones, our tablets and our computers at home. All the content we see is fed back to us in a systematic way to make sure we see only the things we like, agree to or are entertained by. AI algorithms actively collect as much information about us as possible by recording what we like, what we say, what we post, what we watch, how long we watch it, what time of day, in what location, with which people and a whole bunch more personal information. All that information is fed back to AI systems which then figure out what posts, pictures and advertisements to send back to us automatically.
An example of some current AI technologies that you can interact with are being done by the research laboratory OpenAI through its two projects Dall-E, which creates new images from your descriptions and ChatGPT, an automated chat that you can create in words with.
For those at work, AI is now helping workforces to arrange, collect and process all sorts of data into readable formats to make it easier for people to understand complex and large amounts of information. AI is used in what is known as Natural Language Generation which takes information and automatically turns it into readable formats like charts or graphs.
In my work as a writer, I often use a speech to text recognition software to make my work easier when interviewing. This is automated software which can take a recording of a person’s voice and convert it into text. All of this is done automatically with an app on my phone and the internet. Whenever we go online to deal with a problem with a service by a major company or cooperation, we’ll often be directed to a chat service to talk to someone. More often than not, that chat window will have an automated AI service answering your questions.
AI services to varying degrees are used by companies to manage all sorts of systems and processes in order to help major corporations to make fast decisions. These types of AI services are widely used in the financial sector, health care sector and insurance companies. Another system that has taken hold over the past few years is peer-to-peer networking of systems and computers to share data. This is a system of connected computers that share their abilities to solve complex problems together. This type of system is most famous for making cryptocurrencies possible.
The reason why I like to imagine AI as the trickster is that this legend is there to remind us of a basic lesson in life. This lesson reminds us we are never fully in control of the world, its animals, the environment or even of each other. Any decision we choose to make can either help us or hurt us and we should always be careful. AI is already affecting the lives of people all over the world and the work that researchers are doing with the support of major governments and corporations is set to make this technology even more powerful and pervasive in our lives. There are benefits to AI, however, I can also see the dangers of what it can do in creating, maintaining and increasing wealth inequality or in deadly advances in automated military software and hardware.
The legend of the trickster is alive and well here today in AI.