BT is cutting 55,000 jobs, they say. Over the next few years. That is not entirely accurate, however. What they are doing is cutting 44,000 jobs and making around 10,000 people unemployed, but then replacing them with AI. Computers. Bots.
I suppose we should be thankful, we who are not being made redundant, that this is merely a national communications company which is happy to swap brain for byte. Automation is not new. The Speaking Clock was much loved. Although I sense less affection for the currently ubiquitous “press one to be ignored, press two to be ignored again”.
But they are taking over, the bots. To be brutally honest, humanity seems to be rolling over and begging to be taken over. Students, and all manner of 'writers' we hear, are in thrall to ChatGPT. And Google Translate is making a linguistic wasteland of international communication. I am constantly hounded by botty offers to help me spell/punctuate/decide whether I mean affect or effect. I am grateful I had Donald Campbell at Paisley Grammar, against whose teaching skills Grammarly pales into automated insignificance.
However, this is just the tip of a fast-moving, mindless, faceless, all-powerful robotic iceberg that threatens the fragile lifeboat of our 21st-century human existence every day. Do not, for one second, believe that all the streamlining, the 'freeing up time for more important things', 'enhanced security' and 'cutting waiting times' has anything to do with improving things for you, the little person. This is simply about helping the Big Boys improve their Big Bottom line.
It is a daily battle, squandering valuable living time proving to one bot that you are not another bot by identifying how many squares on your screen contain a Proclaimer. Did I mention I am in Kenya? On four separate occasions in the last two weeks, the bots at Visa Secure have blocked my access to charity Mama Biashara's own bank account and put the lives of the women we are rescuing here in danger.
For once, I do not exaggerate for comic effect. Lives in danger. Nothing to flag up a suspicious transaction. Nothing. No variation in pattern, place or person. We are talking about £700. While credit card fraud is having a huge party elsewhere, I am reduced to human rubble by these blockings. Any number of hours and tears later, thanks to the people in the Co-operative Bank's social media team contacting the people in their business banking team (I know… charity is business to a bank) who are permitted to speak to the people at Visa Secure, the transaction was allowed. I am not a botophile.
Imagine, then, my horror to read that the Law Society of Scotland is considering allowing the use of bots in legal practice. I can hear my old private law professor, David Walker, birling in his grave. Scottish law is, at its heart, a system of principles. It is nuanced with precedent, peppered with statute and built for intelligent argument. So how many bytes in a first principle, I wonder?
The law is not the only institution under cyberattack. I have little sympathy with the current tendency to eliminate personal responsibility for anything at all by pathologising everything. Pick your most unpleasant characteristic and add the word 'disorder' to give yourself a ‘get out of anything’ free card and a load of sympathy. Calls to mental health helplines are going through the roof. But now the Counsel-Bot is being deployed. What? Even when, by definition, a bot has neither a 'mentality', nor 'health'? Nor, indeed, any true concept of 'helping'. For those in genuine need of help, this is unimaginably uncaring.
Of course, bots are all over physical medicine like a rash. We have all made the huge mistake of Googling any combination of recurrent symptoms to discover you are pregnant, have an enlarged prostate and, probably, trench foot. But now that diagnostic method is official.
To be fair, the average, overworked GP is not infallible. Our own doctor in Paisley deployed the catchphrase “it's a fluey virus, there's a lot of it around” for just about anything that laid one low. The NHS is in the process of being torn apart. Nothing like offering up the Doc-U-Bot as a way to get rid of many more of these pesky humans with their degrees and their experience and their pay demands.
I have no problem with using the incredible power of computers to make the world a better place. We all already do. But now, it would seem, the bots (and, more worryingly, their programmers) are taking over. Unquestionable, uncontactable. I always imagine a sort of Wizard of Oz-like situation. But much more evil.
A long time ago, during a night class in Paisley, I went for a few lessons in using the wonder that was the computer. And the internet. Everything was there for the doing, the knowing, the discovering. But the big lesson we learned there was not particularly technical. “S*** in, s*** out,” declared the teacher. Quid erat demonstrandum.
With huge apologies to Rutger Hauer, and for all Blade Runner nerds, I would like to end on this, because someday, someone will be saying it. And that will be very, very sad: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Brilliant critical minds on fire with their writing, angry C-bombs cascading through real political comedy, the wonder, the glorious, unpredictable joy of the human mind at work, the healing power of in-person communication. Nuanced, thoughtful argument. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
PS Please tick the box below to prove you are not a robot.