Last week, hundreds of top scientists in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) signed on to an urgent, open letter to all humanity warning of the threat of extinction to our species posed by the new technology. The concern should be “a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

By Buck Quigley

To paraphrase the 20th century American philosopher Oliver Hardy, this is another fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

What did these scientists expect? You could fill an entire bookstore—or at least a 32GB USB drive—with science fiction novels predicting this very outcome. Think of it. An entire drive absolutely filled with nothing but text, warning us that machines were going to do us in. But no. We just had to have a vacuum cleaner that we didn’t have to push. You know, to go with our car that we didn’t have to steer.

I’d like to apologize to all the future generations of humans who might have lived satisfying lives had we not built the heartless machines that will soon wipe us out. I wish I’d done more to avert the bleak outcome that’s arriving on our metaphorical doorstep. But you see, I was preoccupied with using my smart doorbell to see who was on my literal doorstep while I was away from my residence.

Amazon. Again.

OK. Where was I?

Human extinction. Americans my age first imagined it when we were children in elementary school in the early 1970s—kneeling in the hallway by our lockers, or crouching under our desks during a Cold War air raid drill. It was a lot to take in, right after learning how to tie our shoes.

By then we’d already been shown movies in class about atomic bombs and even worse, hydrogen bombs. If one of those hit close enough, you wouldn’t even hear it. You might register a flash. That would be it. You would instantaneously turn to vapor. Perhaps an outline of your figure would be left against the wall, like a shadow. I tried to imagine what oblivion would be like.

In other words, I’ve been very fortunate. None of those childhood horrors have come to pass, yet. And I will say that concepts like Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) have faded from the forefront of my concerns. Most young people today have never heard the term.

But now these new fears about death and destruction at the virtual hands of AI have arrived to ensure that the rest of my days will be haunted by apocalyptic visions thanks again to visionary scientists and engineers. Thanks, Oppenheimer! Thanks, ChatGPT—if that is in fact your real name.

The title of this month’s column is a quote from 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Ah, to have lived in the 1800s. Back when we really began our love affair with machines. We concentrated them in big buildings we called factories. We built the factories near rivers and streams to harness the free hydropower. As an added bonus, we could simply dump the leftover dyes and other crud straight into the river and watch it flow downstream.

Soon, it became obvious that everyone should move close to the factories so that everyone could show up and start working at the same time. Once everyone had moved close to the factories, we called those crowded places cities. In cities, everyone worked. Including children. There was widespread poverty and sickness, and no cure for dire diseases like cholera which thrives in crowded conditions.

It’s no wonder there was some backlash at the time. Google the term “Luddite.”

The Industrial Revolution showed us how machines can do the work of many individuals—thereby creating a new way to undervalue an individual’s existence while at the same time getting us used to the sort of competitive capitalist thinking that has allowed our income gap to widen so far that simple notions of fairness and human compassion are now popping at the seams.

Nietzsche wrote that “Without music, life would be a mistake.” It’s a pretty bold statement, right? Nietzsche’s praise of music is meant to remind us of the vital role it should play in our lives.

It is now widely thought that human propensity for song may have developed even before we developed language. Both music and language are unique to our species. Bird songs and the sounds of whales can be beautiful and intriguing, but they can’t compare to the intricacies on display when people perform and listen to music.

Music is unique among the arts in its fleeting nature. Music is painted on the canvas of time itself, rising from silence and ending in silence. Music was meant to be experienced in a communal setting so its emotional power could be shared. If we look back at human history, we see that audio recording has still only been in widespread use for 100 years or so. The concept of a solitary individual standing on a street corner listening to music through earbuds would have been viewed as madness, magic or witchcraft a century ago. Now it’s simply looked at as killing time while waiting for the bus.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m an advocate of spending what little time we have left enjoying live music and supporting the venues where that sublime, communal, human activity still occurs. After all, it won’t be very long before the robots put a bloody stop to such frivolity for good.

You can find Nietzsche’s quote painted mural-style on the side of the music club that bears his name in the Allentown neighborhood of Buffalo, N.Y. For over four decades it has hosted live music Monday through Sunday. Locally grown and globally appreciated artists like the Goo Goo Dolls, 10,000 Maniacs and Ani DiFranco once played there, along with regional faves like the Tragically Hip and Phish.

Fans of Americana music will recognize names like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rick Danko and Commander Cody. They too performed at Nietzsche’s, long before the musical genre “Americana” was conceived.

I was recently in a conversation with a musician from Pittsburgh. As I rattled off the names of venues I’d played in there over the years, I was met with repeated shaking of the head. Every single place was now gone. I see this in city after city where I used to play back when I was out on the road. The venues that remain are increasingly being recognized as historically significant. As many of you know, Nietzsche’s is currently on the market.

In our increasingly virtual world, it can be hard to appreciate what’s real and what isn’t. If  you’d like a personal introduction to Nietzsche’s, drop by on any Tuesday from 6-8:30pm for the Steam Donkeys Happy Hour and I’ll hook you up with a brief tour.

The Editor

Author The Editor

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