AI, Artificial Intelligence, cognitive computing, ethics, health care, the singularity, user experience, utopia
This is the first of three connected blog posts on the appropriate uses and misuses of AI. In this blog post, I’ll look at “Artificial Ingestion.” (Trust me, it will tie back to another AI, Artificial Intelligence).
While ingestion, and therefore “Artificial Ingestion” is a complex topic, I begin with ingestion because it is a bit more divorced from thought itself. It is easier to think of digestion as separate from thinking; that is, to objectify it more than artificial intelligence because in writing about intelligence, it is necessary to use intelligence itself.
Do we eat to live or live to eat? There is little doubt that eating is necessary to the life of animals such as human beings. Our distant ancestors could have taken a greener and more photosynthetic path but instead, we have collectively decided to kill other organisms to garner our energy. Eating has a utilitarian purpose; indeed, it is a vital purpose. Without food, we eventually die. Moreover, the quality and quantity of the food we eat has a profound impact on our health and well-being. Many of us live in a paradoxical time when it comes to food. Our ancestors often struggled mightily to obtain enough food. Our brains are thus genetically “wired” to search for high sugar, high fat, high salt foods. Even though many of us “know” that we ingest too many calories and may have read and believe that too much salt and sugar are bad for us, it is difficult to overcome the “programming” of countless generations. We are also attracted to brightly colored food. In our past, these colors often signaled foods that were especially high in healthful phytochemicals.
Of course, in modern societies of the “Global North” our genetic predispositions toward high sugar, high fat, high salt, highly colored foods are manipulated by greedy corporate interests. Foods like crackers and chips that contain almost nothing of real value to the human diet are packaged to look like real foods. Beyond that, billions of dollars of advertising dollars are spent to convince us that if we buy and ingest these foods it will help us achieve other goals. For example, we are led to believe that a mother who gives her children “food” consisting of little other than sugar and food dye will be loved by her children and they will be excited and happy children. Children themselves are led to believe that ingesting such junk food will lead them to magical kingdoms. Adult males are led to believe that providing the right kinds of high fat, high salt chips will result in male bonding experiences. Adult males are also led to believe that the proper kinds of alcoholic beverages will result in the seduction of highly desirable looking mates.
Over time, the natural act of eating has been enhanced with rituals. Human societies came to hunt and gather (and later farm) cooperatively. In this way, much more food could be provided over a more continuous basis. Rather than fight each other over food, we sit down in a “civilized” manner and enjoy food together. Some people, through a combination of natural talent and training become experts in the preparation of foods. We have developed instruments such as chopsticks, spoons, knives and forks to help us eat foods. Most typically, various cultures have rituals and customs surrounding food. In many cases, these seem to be geared toward removing us psychologically from the life-giving functionality of food toward the communal enjoyment of food. For example, in my culture, we wait to eat until everyone is served. We eat at a “reasonable” pace rather than gobbling everything down as quickly as possible (before others at the table can snatch our portion). If there are ten people at the table and eleven delicious deserts, people turn many social summersaults in order to avoid taking the last one.
For much of our history, food was confined to what was available in the local region and season. Now, many people, but by no means all, are well off enough to buy foods at any season that originally were grown all over the world. When I was a child, very few Americans had even tried sushi, for example, and the very idea of eating raw fish turned stomachs. At this point, however, many Americans have tried it and most who have enjoy it. Similarly, other cuisines such as Indian and Middle Eastern have spread throughout the world in ways that would have been impossible without modern transportation, refrigeration, and modern training with cookbooks, translations, and videos supplementing face to face apprenticeships.
Some of these trends have enabled some people to enjoy foods of high quality and variety. We support many more people on the planet than would have been possible through hunting and gathering. These “advances” are not without costs. First, there are more people starving in today’s world than even existed on the planet 250,000 years ago. So, these benefits are very unevenly distributed. Second, while fine and delicious foods are available to many, the typical diet of many is primarily based on highly processed grains, soybeans, fat, refined sugar, salt and additives. These “foods” contain calories that allow life to continue; however, they lack many naturally occurring substances that help provide for optimal health. As mentioned, these foods are made “palatable” in the cheapest possible way and then advertised to death to help fool people into thinking they are eating well. In many cases, even “fresh” foods are genetically modified through breeding or via genetic engineering to provide foods that are optimized for cheap production and distribution rather than taste. Anyone who has grown their own tomatoes, for example, can readily appreciate that home grown “heirloom” tomatoes are far tastier than what is available in many supermarkets. While home farmers and small farmers have little in the way of government support, at least in the USA, mega-farming corporations are given huge subsidies to provide vast quantities of poor quality calories. As a consequence, low income people can generally not even afford good quality fresh fruits and vegetables and instead are forced through artificially cheap prices to feed their families with brightly packaged but essentially empty calories.
While some people enjoy some of the best food that ever existed, others have very mediocre food and still others have little food of any kind. What comes next? On the one hand, there is a move toward ever more efficient means of production and distribution of food. The food of humans has always been of interest to a large variety of other animals including rats, mice, deer, rabbits, birds, and insects. Insect pests are particularly difficult to deal with. In response, and in order to keep more of the food for “ourselves”, we have largely decided it is worth the tradeoff to poison our food supply. We use poisons that are designed to kill off insect pests but not kill us off, at least not immediately. I grow a little of my own food and some of that food gets eaten by insects, rabbits, and birds. Personally, I cannot see putting poison on my food supply in order to keep pests from having a share. However, I am lucky. I do not require 100% of my crop in order to stay alive nor to pay off the bank loan by selling it all. Because I grow a wide variety of foods in a relatively small space, there is a lively ecosystem and I don’t typically get everything destroyed by pests. Farmers who grow huge fields of corn, however, can be in a completely different situation and a lot of a crop can fall prey to pests. If they have used pesticides in the past, this is particularly true because they have probably poisoned the natural predators of those pests. At the same time, the pests themselves continue to evolve to be resistant to the poisons. In this way, chemical companies perpetuate a vicious circle in which more and more poison is needed to keep the crops viable. Luckily for the chemical companies, the long-term impact of these poisons on the humans who consume them is difficult to prove in courts of law.
There are movements such as “slow food” and eating locally grown food and urban gardens which are counter-trends, but by and large, our society of specialization has moved to more “efficient” production and distribution of food. More people eat out a higher percentage of the time and much of that “eating out” is at “fast food” restaurants. People grab a sandwich or a bagel or a burger and fries for a “quick fix” for their hunger in order to “save time” for “more productive” pursuits. Some of these “more productive” pursuits include being a doctor to cure diseases that come about in part from people eating junky food and spending most of their waking hours commuting, working at a desk or watching TV. Other “more productive” pursuits include being a lawyer and suing doctors and chemical companies for diseases. Yet other “more productive pursuits” include making money by pushing around little pieces of other people’s money. Still other “more productive pursuits” include making and distributing drugs to help people cope with lives where they spend all their time in “more productive pursuits.”
Do we live to eat or eat to live? Well, it is a little of both. But we seem to have painted ourselves into a corner where most people most of the time have forgone the pleasure of eating that is possible in order to eat more “efficiently” so that we can spend more time making more money. We do this in order to…? What is the end game here?
One can imagine a society in which eating itself becomes a completely irrelevant activity for the vast majority of people. Food that requires chewing takes more time so let’s replace chewing with artificial chewing. Using a blender allows food with texture to be quickly turned to a liquid that can be ingested in the minimum necessary time. One extreme science fiction scenario was depicted in the movie “Soylent Green” which, as it turns out, is made from the bodies of people killed to make room for more people. The movie is set in 2022 (not that far away) and was released in 1973. Today, in 2016, there exists a food called “soylent” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_(food)) whose inventor, Rob Rhinehart took the name from the movie. It is not made from human remains but the purpose is to provide an “efficient” solution to the Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan). More efficient than smoothies, shakes, and soylent are feeding tubes.
Of course, there are medical conditions where feeding tubes are necessary as a replacement or supplement to ordinary eating as is being “fed” via an IV. But is this really where humanity in general needs to be headed? Is eating to be replaced with “Artificial Ingestion” because it is more efficient? We wouldn’t have to “waste our time” and “waste our energy” shopping, choosing, preparing, chewing, etc. if we could simply have all our nutritional needs met via an IV or feeding tube. With enough people opting in to this option, I am sure industrial research could provide ever less invasive and more mobile forms of IV and tube feeding. At last, humanity could be freed from the onerous task of ingestion, all of which could be replaced by “Artificial Ingestion.” The dollars saved could be put toward some more worthy purpose; for example, making a very few people very very rich.
There are, of course, a few problematic issues. For one thing, despite years of research, we are still discovering nutrients and their impacts. Any attempt to completely replace food with a uniform liquid supplement would almost certainly leave out some vital, but as yet undiscovered ingredients. But a more fundamental question is to what end would we undertake this endeavor in the first place? What if the purpose of life is not, after all, to accomplish everything “more efficiently” but rather, what if the purpose of life is to live it and enjoy it? What then?