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I wonder, I wonder if you’ve seen the Cunard cruise holidays advert voiced over by Alan Watts (Zen populariser and self-styled “philosophical entertainer”).  The premise of the advert is that a Cunard cruise holiday is a place where dreams come true. Barney Girling, executive creative director of the company responsible for the advert, says: “Alan Watts’ distinctive speech about finding oneself within an infinite dream perfectly captured the sheer magic and scale of what Cunard now offers their guests.”  

Well, that’s a stretch, Barney.  

Such sentiments have nothing whatsoever to do with what Alan Watts is saying. Watts in a moment of ironic prescience even prefaces the words extracted for the advert by saying he’s not trying to sell anything. Rather, he’s putting forward an idea he wants us to play with.

Watts asks us to imagine what would happen if we were able to dream any dream we wanted to dream. And he finishes this part of that thought with these words: “Finally you would dream where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not typing these paltry words in my cabin on board a Cunard cruise liner.

Once again we are reminded of the importance of context. As I may have mentioned, every ‘thing’ is what it is only in its relationship with something else. An algorithmic rule-following method which breaks everything down into its component parts has no appreciation of the context in which those parts have their meaning. It’s why AI cannot appreciate poetry, metaphor or jokes. As you know, the same words spoken by different people can have vastly different meanings. Books are worlds of context and by reading we enrich our own which in turn enables us to appreciate other contextual relations.

It’s often said that AI tools are trained by having them read enormous amounts of material. But of course, no AI tool has ever actually read anything at all. Breaking language down into its components is a sure fire way of missing or misunderstanding pretty much everything the whole is saying. It makes me wonder how the soubriquet ‘intelligence’ ever came to be applied.

My esteemed colleague M. Courtin is an excellent man for many things bien entendu, including book recommendations. To use a cruise liner metaphor, he has never steered me wrong. His last suggestion was Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber. In this novel it is pointed out that humans, to become intelligent, developed a relatively large brain. Ants, to achieve the same result preferred to use several thousand small brains united by very subtle communication systems. It is further noted that if the planet was ever visited by extraterrestrials who wished to talk to the true intelligent masters of the earth, they would undoubtedly try to talk to the ants.

It’s all about context.

Until next time, Happy Reading/Contextualising!