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The Awesome Rise of AI… You Must be Choking

In her monthly column, Penny Pepper explores her love-hate relationship with artificial intelligence

Photo: Alexey Kotelnikov/Alamy

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This article’s headline is not an error. Welcome to my world of the use of artificial intelligence in voice dictation! Shoking? Cokeing? Joking. 

It’s the fault of Dragon Dictate, a conversational AI software, with which I’ve had a love-hate relationship with for many years. 

Without it, I wouldn’t be writing this column at all. Since September, I now use the app Dragon Anywhere on my mobile, which has, in many senses, revolutionised my working life – particularly since I experienced brain haemorrhages last August. Combined with arthritis, holding a pen or accessing a keyboard for any length of time is not workable, which means that when Dragon works, my words fly. 

But when it doesn’t, the AI joke isn’t funny anymore – no matter how many laughs Alexa is programmed to blast at you. For those of us it might truly help, when AI is wrong, we fall further into inaccessibility. 

Apart from Dragon, I have two Alexas, one at each end of my flat. I cannot overestimate how helpful and essential this type of AI has been during my post-stroke recovery, giving me access through my voice commands to everything from the local weather, music streaming platforms, and beloved Aunty Beeb podcasts. When you have negligible mobility, there is a comfort in these actions, and Alexa definitely connects me to a sense of independence I feared had further slipped away from me.

But every other instruction ends in a screaming match of as many obscenities as you can imagine (with some of my own that I invent to insult the stupid bot). And here’s the crunch: AI, as merely a computer programme, does not understand our human subtleties. And I say this with feeling as a writer: it might learn words and see when they are used together, but it does not know what they mean, and bases responses on those patterns that it recognises.

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I knew this in my gut from the first moment I wrestled with Dragon Dictate in its earliest form many years ago – when it called a close friend ‘Tank’ instead of ‘Steph’ no matter what I did with the correction facility. 

Lately, despite improvements, other platforms show errors. My weary favourite so far is when they turn ‘Penny’s’ into ‘penis’. 

Compare two descriptions of the same photo of me and my visually impaired friend, T, at a Charing Cross crêpe café, a lively colourful scene that invites proper description.

The Facebook automated AI description reads: “Maybe an image of six people”. When asked again: “No description available. Specsavers.”

The Be My Eyes AI description reads: “The picture shows two women sitting at a table inside a café with a large glass window through which you can see the street outside and a Specsavers store. One of the women is sitting in a wheelchair. She has short hair with bangs, dyed pinkish-purple, and is wearing glasses. Smiling, she is dressed in a red-and-white polka dot jacket. The other woman has shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a black dress with small white floral patterns.”

Many in my networks have expressed concern over AI’s cost and the not-exaggerated fear that disabled people will be, yet again, used as pawns in the grasping capitalist system. “I feel very afraid of it,” one friend said. “Replacing people with AI to cut the cost of social care.”

The Japanese have led the way with practical AI robotics, although not all has gone smoothly. There was Robear, a 2015 prototype lifting robot, and scarily, others soon followed. 

“Some are meant for physical care,” according to James Wright in the MIT Technology Review. “Including machines that can help lift older people… assist with mobility… detect falls… feed them, and help them take a bath or use the toilet.” 

Japan also had Hug, a lifting robot; and even Pepper(!), a more humanoid robot. EllieQ is a recent AI robot for the lonely elderly, presenting as a comforting pet (studies show that 95% of owners of this bot felt it reduced their loneliness).

I haven’t found a piece of AI software I would trust to wipe my arse, let alone style my precious hair. Yet frustrating barriers can be removed by this technology. 

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“My phone is a little mini-computer with many apps that make my life easier… things like smart light bulbs can be very useful,” says K. While H muses that Alexa regularly makes a “heinous amount of mistakes and misunderstandings – AI is a bit like a child”.

T’s example shows AI in a positive light, and I know many disabled people, including myself, find great value in how such technology handles reminders with personal messages that can be honed to individual needs. 

Since my brain traumas, and subsequent memory loss, I now have multiple alarms telling me what medication to take and when to take it without needing to touch or physically handle an object (even if the initial set-up and programming can be infuriating). 

I’ve yet to investigate generative AI, the potential enemy of all writers. As a member of the Society of Authors, I will add my fears to its campaign detailing how we are likely to be at risk of exploitation with unauthorised, and unpaid, use of our work.

But one story from a friend about a Tesla car summed up so much about the AI debate: there’s a fart feature you can turn on through an app to, among other things, locate your car.

There you have the height of civilisation. A car that farts.

Penny Pepper is an award-winning author, poet and disabled activist whose work focuses on identity, difference and what makes us human


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