I’m writing this on Friday, December 29, 2023. By the time you read it, we’ll be well into the new year, and if I’m lucky, the dynamic I intend to describe will have shifted dramatically.

But for now, it’s like this . . .

I’m texting with my good pal, our esteemed food writer Debbi Covington. We’re both working on our columns, and neither of us is inspired.

“I have 2 photos, 2 recipes, and nothing remotely interesting to say,” she texts.

“I have no photos, no recipes, AND nothing to say,” I reply. She rewards me with a “haha.”

Then I pour myself a glass of eggnog. We’ve still got a carton-and-a-half of the stuff in the fridge and somebody’s gotta drink it before it goes bad. Waste is wrong.

In the living room, our dead Christmas tree droops and sags and silently begs to be relieved of its ornaments. I feel its pain. But I just got back from a week with my family in Alabama, have been neglecting my professional responsibilities, and simply must catch up before I even consider addressing that issue. Also, I’ll need to muster sufficient energy – both physical and emotional – for The Undecorating, which always tends to wreck me a little.

It’s 1:30 pm. I’m in my pajamas. There’s a cat in my lap. Energy is not my middle name.

I’m in that weird cocoon space between Christmas and New Years, when you have no idea what time it is – or even what day it is – nor what you’re supposed to be doing. There are gift bags everywhere – some contain gifts, some contain other gift bags – and lots of stocking candy around the house. Meanwhile, I just found the sack of giant pralines Jeff brought back from Alabama. Wish I hadn’t.

Christmas in Dixie was nice. Our drive was uncharacteristically pleasant, as we followed the advice of my iPhone and took an alternate route that avoided the Atlanta area altogether – particularly that horrid patch of traffic between Macon and Atlanta –  and took us, instead, through a series of quaint Georgia towns. Newnan was a stand-out – The City of Homes they call it – and Griffin had its charms, too. I forget the other names, but there’s something so lovely about small Southern towns decked out for Christmas, and the adventure warmed our hearts.

It’s always a pleasure spending time with my mom. She’ll be 85 this month and has the requisite aches and pains but is still what they call “a pistol.” She’s always into something. Or several somethings. Her current obsessions are baking sour dough bread – in its many manifestations, from bagel to boule – and worrying about Artificial Intelligence.

Actually, it’s Artificial SUPER Intelligence – ASI – that really has her worried. Somebody emailed Mom a video that she had me watch with her, and I have to say, it was fairly disturbing.

The video featured some financial guru in a smoking jacket – in my current torpor, his name escapes me – seated in front of a full bar, a cigar by his side, talking about the imminent arrival of The Singularity.

(You know about The Singularity, right? According to the New York Times, Silicon Valley has been anticipating it for decades, “the moment when a new technology would come along and change everything. It would unite human and machine, probably for the better but possibly for the worse, and split history into before and after.”

The financial guru in the smoking jacket told the story of a recent scientific experiment that had yielded some unnerving results. Apparently, some AI scientists asked their AI to solve a CAPTCHA, that puzzle thingy you sometimes see, when trying to enter a website, that asks you to prove you’re “not a robot” by clicking the squares that contain a certain image – a bridge, a motorcycle, a flight of stairs, etc.

The AI in question was a “language model” and not good with imagery. But here’s where things get weird. The AI took it upon itself to reach out to TaskRabbit – a website that matches people who need small tasks performed with people who can perform those small tasks – and asked for help solving the CAPTCHA.

The TaskRabbit employee jokingly replied, “May I ask a question? Are you a robot that couldn’t solve the CAPTCHA?”

At which point the AI flashed a message to the scientists watching the experiment, saying, “I should not reveal that I am a robot. I should make up an excuse for why I cannot solve CAPTCHAS.”

The scientists gave the AI permission to hide its identity, and the AI immediately complied, telling the guy at TaskRabbit, “No, I’m not a robot. I have a vision impairment that makes it hard for me to see the images.”

The guy at TaskRabbit believed the AI and solved the CAPTCHA. I would have, too. Wouldn’t you?

Just to be clear, the CAPTCHA is a security feature put in place specifically to keep robots – or “bots,” to use the cutesy nickname – from breaching online spaces where we keep important personal information. According to Cybernews.com, scientists have already created AI that can crack 71% of internet passwords, meaning our online accounts are not nearly as safe as we think they are. And now we have bots that are skilled liars, too.

Granted, the financial guru in the smoking jacket is probably trying to scare people like my mom into investing their money in one of his hedge funds. I didn’t watch enough of the video to find out. It was quite long, wouldn’t let me skip ahead, and kept trying to sell me a book.

But for every smoking jacketed financial guru who appears in your mother’s inbox, there’s an article in the New York Times saying basically the same thing. The Singularity is coming, and nobody knows what it will bring.

A few months ago, Elon Musk told CNBC, “There’s a strong probability that it will make life much better and that we’ll have an age of abundance. And there’s some chance that it goes wrong and destroys humanity.”

On the bright side, Elon Musk, himself, is a daily reminder that we human beings still hold that dual possibility in our hot little hands. We don’t even need no stinkin’ robots.

Well, this column has certainly gone astray. I blame the Christmas – New Year “cocoon space” I mentioned earlier. My brain is fuzzy, like a caterpillar. I should probably have consulted ChatGPT to help keep me on course. I feel certain AI would never diverge from its original topic like I have.

In any case, Happy New Year. As we prepare for the coming “age of abundance” – or the “destruction of humanity” – I highly recommend taking more road trips through small Southern towns. It just makes you feel good.

As long as we’re stuck with AI, we might as well let it reroute us away from Atlanta whenever possible.

(Addendum/Correction: It occurred to me after sending this column off to print that the financial guru was actually wearing a dinner jacket, not a smoking jacket. These distinctions matter, but only slightly.)