Creepy feelings as tech advances: Will Alexa listen in & tell the CIA?

The brain is a muscle which harbours memories and thoughts

I love science and live by it. The discoveries and disciplines through the scientific method are like a religion to me, overruling anything that theological instruction or influence, superstition or irrational beliefs, however prevalent amongst family and friends these are. For instance, I tackled a friend recently who refused to take the Covid-19 vaccine. I don’t know what her resistance was based on but do know that she holds beliefs about ancient disciplines – yoga and the like, and probably has some inhibitions prompted by these. I texted her to say I thought her resistance was anti-social. That would have, I calculated, impacted on her as she thinks of herself and her opinions as socially beneficial. If I said her resistance to vaccination was anti-scientific, the rebuke would be water off a duck’s back.

There are people in our multi-generational world, gentle reader, who are most advanced in very many aspects of their lives but still cling to superstitious beliefs. On the very afternoon of writing this column I was at a venue with two dear friends, both of them Christian by birth and belief. The topic turned to trans-gender people applying to join the Army, as one of these friends was a senior officer, now retired, in Her Majesty’s armed forces. Though this ex-Army general thought there were difficulties involved in admitting men who had transgendered into women into the women’s regiments of the Army, he still believed in there being a “soul” inside the human body, a spirit that was more than flesh and blood living inside each of us humans.

I said this was a religious belief, of a ghost living inside the machine, whereas the machine was the ghost. The brain is a muscle which harbours memories and thoughts, but it doesn’t give rise to a vaporous being separate and residing within the flesh and bone structure. No, my friends wouldn’t have this. Yes, they believed in brain surgery when tumours grew there, but they still believed there was a spirit lurking inside which had a mind of its own and formed opinions about being in the right or the wrong gendered body. I did ask how this mismatch between the soul and the body had come about. But there was no answer forthcoming.

It’s like asking God-fearing people whether God had invented Covid. Some say yes, it’s a punishment for humanity’s misdeeds. But the punishment seems pretty random -- it should get the real bad guys and not someone’s innocent grandmother. Maybe God uses algorithms which go wrong?

And yet one knows that the advance of scientific technique has clarified a great deal about the universe but has conjointly invented or discovered nasty things. The entire late nineteenth and early twentieth century advances of Rutherford, Thomson, Einstein, Heisenberg, Paoli and many others led to the invention of nuclear weaponry. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War were not proud steps in the growth of civilisation, but then there was also the concomitant possibility of using nuclear power plants for peace.

Science in the hands of political aims?

Nasty and good ones? Inevitable. Science is neutral.

Even so, some things scare me. I read now about capitalist enterprises making artificial meat -- growing pork, beef and lamb meat on an industrial scale. They say it tastes just like the real thing but doesn’t involve the growth and slaughter of animals. Articles I have read claim it is poised to replace animal food farming. We non-vegetarians will be supplied from meat-growing factories that don’t entail the death of any animal. So, when we serve mutton dhan sakh to our dinner guests we can say “no animals were harmed in the preparation of this meal!”

And yes, this advance in genetic-engineered proliferation could put an end to farming animals for food and it could lead in time to the extinction of the species which humans eat.

But maybe not. Cows will still be valuable for their milk, sheep for their wool — and pigs — er… um… I suppose pigs to the slaughter. Shame!

That’s probably the most serious technical-consumer advance enabled by scientific research, and I have a creepy feeling about it.

Would I want to eat lab-factory lamb? I suppose I should welcome this planet-changing advance in what humans do to other species and certainly the coming generations will welcome it, but I still feel -- how do the Brits put it? — a bit “yucky” about it. I could always turn vegan, gentle reader, so have no concern for me (You don’t have to tell us. No one does anyway, idiot! — Ed)

Then the other technological advances I resent, all scientifically triumphant, are the ones that offer you baubles in exchange for intruding on your life. I bought this device called Alexa, because a pretty young salesgirl in a bookshop in Mumbai told me I could have endless Nusrat and Hindi film songs if I bought it. I did. Now people tell me that this innocent-looking cylindrical speaker is listening to every conversation I have and will try to sell me things or even report me to the CIA. Eeek!

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