Why AI is Our Fire

This is part of human nature, the desire to change consciousness.” Michael Pollan

I love to cook. And I do it because I love to eat. Specifically, I love to cook (and eat) good, lusty, farm-to-table California cuisine. And if that California cuisine is cooked over a wood fire, so much the better.

When you want to eat the best eponymous cuisine the Golden State has to offer, you go to its progenitor-in-chief, the celebrated Alice Waters (and Cal alumna – Go Bears!) of Chez Panisse fame in Berkeley. And when you want to deeply think and read about it, it’s the writings of one of Alice’s chief acolytes, Michael Pollan that you seek. An axis of deliciousness, indeed.

Pollan has made major contributions in thinking, now far beyond the culinary world. His seminal work – The Omnivore’s Dilemma – was a genius piece of writing that’s helped Americans of the 21st century come to grips with the organic, locavore, farm-to-table movement. It also shed a bright light to help us understand our food ways, health and government policies through multiple helpings of science, tradition, heritage and deliciousness. Maxims like “Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food” and “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” have helped change how we eat better, healthier, and more deliciously. Oh, and he’s also a professor at the University of California (Go Bears!).

The farm-to-table ethos of the California cuisine thing has now become deeply ingrained across the United States (and beyond... but arguably California stole it from the French. Can I get a side of freedom fries?). These notions – that once smacked solely of left coast, granola, hippie ravings -- have now seeped seriously into American food consciousness. From nutty experiments like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me of a decade ago, to the latest tweet I got on “What Happens One Hour After Drinking a Coke”, what more could be said? We’ve all gotten the memo, right? The revolution is here, and it’s delicious.

In addition to cooking, I also love Netflix.

There’s some good cooking getting chronicled on the Flix-o-the-Net, and my Code Halo will document many repeated viewings of Jiro Dreams of Sushi as well as the acerbic wanderings of Anthony Bourdain to yet-another Part Unknown (An idea for TV execs: In this time of Reality TV Uber Alles, wouldn’t it be amazing to see a pairing of the aging Joker/Smoker Bourdain with also-aging Midnight-Toker Rick Steves, forced to travel the world together staying only in Elder Hostels, Oscar-and-Felix-syle? Let the cultural insights/infighting ensue. My money’s on the boy scoutish Team Steves, by the way...).

So imagine my delight at discovering on Netflix the new Michael Pollan series Cooked. Equal parts travelogue and teaching show, Cooked stems from Pollan’s 2013 book of the same title, and he explores food past and present through the four elemental categories — fire, water, air, earth — while trying to improve his own cooking skills.

OK, so now I’ve “fed” you on some of the best food watching (and food “thinking”) out there today. Are you hungry yet? Is your brain hungry yet? Where’s the connection to AI, you ask? Let me “set the table” for you (see what I did there?), by quoting my colleague Ben Pring:

(I present F.Scott Fitzgerald’s famous words, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”). On the one hand it’s not hard to imagine that the offspring of the computer that won Go http://bit.ly/1PTnLAK aren’t going to stop there. On the other hand though, a future where people are oppressed by malign machines seems straight from a back lot in Hollywood or Watford; fun to chew on with some popcorn on a Saturday night but hardly something your angst needs to grind on right now.

Mmmmm. Popcorn... AI... I am hungry.

But here’s the thing: Pollan makes a profound point in “Fire”, which the first episode of Cooked. And this got me thinking – really thinking – about where we (humans) are in our evolution and our race with machines (not AGAINST machines). And for his part, Pollan talks about humanity’s early relationship with fire, in a wonderful exchange with Harvard primatologist and anthropologist Richard Wrangham. Central to the discussion is that the first human evolved when an ape learned to cook. Our nearest biological relative is the gorilla, and they have to eat a tremendous amount of leaves to get enough calories to survive. But chewing leaves takes a ton of energy, and their jaw muscles wrap over the top of their skull and literally constrain the space needed for a cerebrum – the center of abstract thought in humans.

As they talk, imagine substituting the word “fire” with “AI” and you get the idea why the possibilities for us – right here, right now – are so exciting. And endless:

A gorilla’s face is protruding; its mouth, jaws and teeth became relatively small with the advent of homo erectus: He is the ape that become human. He evolved into the modern human anatomy, with small mouths, small teeth, weak muscles for chewing and a small jaw. Most importantly, we get an increase in brain size up to today. The brain is a hungry organ that needs tremendous amounts of energy. By increasing the proportion of food that is digested with much less physical work, cooking gives you more energy – he is the species that is adapted to eating relatively soft food. That is, less rigorous chewing is required. Think about hunter-gatherers: cooking is absolutely vital. On a raw diet, we have no evidence that anybody can survive in the wild. On a raw diet, humans are really poorly adapted. If we lost our ability to have fire, we would all die.

So what of AI? The above makes me think of the already-classic movie line in 2014’s Automata: “Just a machine? That’s like me saying that you’re just an ape”. When it comes to AI, predictions abound in the news media and from the likes of Elon Musk that AI represents “our greatest existential threat”. But remember - apes didn’t go extinct. Neanderthals did. And they may have died off because they failed to harness the power of fire to the extent their human cousins did. And then – a great leap forward with Cro-Magnons. Who wants to be a Neanderthal, literally or figuratively? Nobody. And consider the dangers of fire to early humans, and the risks they took to get the great leaps forward. It’s extremely probable – no, certain – that many of our progenitors literally played with fire and got burned. Some may have gotten burned very, very, very badly. Some may have burned up acres and acres and acres of resources – forests, game, grain fields, houses, etc. - trying to figure it out (either intentionally, or by misadventure). Some may have accidently killed their families or entire villages in the process. Some may have purposely used it as an instrument of terrible weaponry of war.

But ultimately – it allowed great leaps forward. Through AI, could we be discovering a new form of flint, tools and cooking pots for the first time, unlike any other species? Is this part of our long march to a true understanding of our potential? Despite world wars, brutalities of slavery, ethnic cleansings and other atrocities to ourselves and our environment, haven’t we – as a species – always been moving forward on the human journey? Futurists like Jonathan Zittrain have already coined terms like “Homo Digitas”. Others like Tim Urban talk about our journey up the ladder of evolution relative to chimps, and others species – and worry that change is now coming so exponentially fast, it is possible to think of how much change it would take to literally scare us to death (“Die Progress Units”, or “DPUs”). To me, this borders on the fantastical; AI, like fire, might get scary – really scary. But I’m not sure people would “die” of fear. Think about it: native Americans (bad diseases notwithstanding) didn’t collectively die of fear at the first sight of Spanish ships, guns, magnifying glasses and other mechanized technology – they adapted (sadly, their way of life DID die out).

Digital is here, and the possibilities are endless. Already we have business processes and work processes and flows and people interacting through mechanisms like “If-This-Then-That”, and in IFTTT-speak, these flows are – wait for it – called “recipes”. And with AI, the recipes can nourish and fuel our brains through creativity and curiosity (case in point: when my mind wanders/wonders about answers to questions, all I have to do is Google or Wiki, and boom: mental itch is scratched...) If you started to apply recipes at exponential scale, imagine how limitless our understanding of ourselves, others and society at large could be – to the betterment of all. What if you could use recipes not to “work”, per se, but to make yourself – and those you love – happy, healthy, and enlightened? That would be (deliciously) amazing. It reminds me of “the Happiness Machine” in Ray Bradbury’s book Dandelion Wine: “You want to see the real Happiness Machine? The one they patented a couple thousand years ago. It still runs; not good all the time, no! But it runs. It's been here all along."

Yet, could it be that AI – like fire – as an adjunct and augmentation of humans, could be a fundamental variable on the human journey into the next, great leap forward? It’s absolutely tantalizing to think so. Could it be something as profound as fire in the evolutionary arc? Better than California cuisine? Better than Netflix? Better than the Renaissance. Better than Neil Armstrong. Better than calculus. Better than knowing you’re made of 23 pairs of chromosomes. Better than seeing stars, through a telescope, looking backward through time itself.

My brain is hungry, and I’m tired of eating leaves. So bring me the fire. Let’s start cooking.