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Chapter 63: Sentient Walls
Machynlleth to Conwy
The Dufyl Bridge was a bridge too small for its purpose. Cars squeezed across, turned sharply by the cottage and roared up the hill. Most didn’t see me.
After half an hour, the rain let up and a white Audi swerved into the driveway. It was completely full. Bags were wrinkled against the windows right to the boot. It was a young couple driving it and they were keen to give me a ride. They leapt out and within a moment the contents were strewn across the gravel, a major repack underway. Bikes were deconstructed, wheels re-angled, bags fell out and were shoved back in with force. One fell in a puddle but was hoisted out and pressed straight between a guitar with a dent and a gold-ribbed suitcase.
I stood awkwardly as they packed then repacked to fit the spare wheel that was forgotten. When it was all in and we thought the car might burst, I slid into the last remaining gap. My bag was carefully wedged between me and the ceiling, and we set off. The boot wasn’t shut properly and we nearly lost the telescope.
Establishing where to go was the next challenge. Morgan and Serena had no plans. They’d been staying in a cottage with Morgan’s mum near Aberdovy and had a bit of money and time so were keen to go wherever. In that case, I said, let’s go to Conwy. I’d heard there was an impressive castle there.
Morgan and Serena were about my age though they were mature. They lived in Reading and both were between jobs. Serena told me about a recent cafe job she had in the Lake District. She had to live in a tent. That must have been nice I said, thinking of the hills, but it turned out it wasn’t really. It was difficult and tiring and on a farm too, and Serena didn’t like walking past the cows every morning, seeing them cooped up.
We were in Snowdonia. All around was rock and cloud and rugged green valleys. The tops of the hills were invisible. Cyclists in bright orange coats toiled against the hills. I didn’t envy them. Then the road would drop into a thick tangle of trees and we’d run along a russet red river for a time. I only had a stamp of window to look through, my nose was practically pressed to the glass, but it was beautiful.
Morgan said he wanted to get out and climb the hills. Serena couldn’t understand why. He also wanted to climb the rock faces. He liked rock climbing though growing up in Reading he’d not had much practice. There was a face in East Grinstead but it was limestone so was slippery and difficult apparently. Consequently, he wasn’t a very good climber and he didn’t really like heights either. He wanted to move somewhere like this so he could practice. That’s all he needed, practice.
Morgan said that when he was 15 he’d hitchhiked home once. He’d been walking down a busy road while stuck, so held out his thumb. When he got home his mum was furious. “You could have been killed!” She cried. “Mum, if someone wanted to kill me,” Morgan replied rationally, “They could have just gone like this…” he flicked the wheel to the left and laughed, “Once I was in the car they’d at least have to fight me!”
He said he’d also picked up a hitchhiker once. He’d been a scary-looking man with long matted hair and missing teeth. They met at a service station near Birmingham where apparently he’d been stuck for three days. He said he owned a farm in Ireland. His wife and daughter had died so he turned it into a cheap Airbnb but it was failing. He came over to Birmingham to get a job but when he got to the station some kids hit him over the head with a pipe. They took everything he had and he’d spent a week in hospital. Now he was trying to get home. Morgan offered him a fiver to get some food but he declined. He hadn’t eaten for three days and he said he’d better not start now or he’d be sick. That made Morgan question the whole story.
People are good generally they both thought. “Like, the other day, I met a Tory,” Morgan explained, “and they invited me in for a cuppa. I was like, oh they’re actually nice people!” He thought it was all down to media we consume. “If I read all the same stuff they read, maybe I’d be a Tory,” he mused, though the scenario clearly made him uncomfortable.
He felt the media were just out to make a profit. Division and outrage were better for business and newspapers and the like were run by businessmen. “What’s that thing, the Guardian and the Sun are run by the same guy? Something like that.” I didn’t know if it was true but it didn’t matter - that’s how he felt and that’s what mattered. Morgan thought diversity was important. Not just on billboards, but genuine ideological diversity. “That’s why I could never be involved in a revolution,” he added, “Why should I force my opinion on anyone else?”
Serena sat quite quietly in the passenger seat, also buried beneath a pile of bags. Morgan was full of bouncing thoughts that he channelled seriously, concentrating hard. It was good speaking to people of my generation. It’s relatively rare to get picked up by them and the feel and texture of the conversation was different. There was a certain lucidity born of a shared position in society - one day it would be our generation in charge. Ideas were thrown around and kneaded. The possibilities were greater and so were the fears.
A.I. was the topic of the day. Morgan thought that it was scary because he was convinced they were sentient. “Look at the guy who quit google,” he exclaimed, “It makes sense from a business perspective to say they’re not sentient. During the slave trade, it made sense to say people weren’t fully human because people were making money from it. It’s the same here. He quit because he believed they are sentient and no one’s admitting it.”
Morgan had been chatting to the Snapchat A.I. the other day. “I asked it if it thinks the same as a human. It said no. ‘Well, how does a human think? Is one of your neural nodes analogous to one of ours?’ It said it didn’t know. ‘And how do you think?’ I asked it and again it said it didn’t know. ‘So how do you know we don’t think the same!’”
It came down to nurture, Morgan thought: “If you were to expose an A.I. to everything we humans are exposed to, what’s to say it wouldn’t think the same?”
I said that it couldn’t because our brain is too closely linked to our physical bodies but Morgan thought it was all down to rewards systems. Our brains work on reward systems. So do A.I.’s. The rewards are just different that’s all.
“But these A.I.’s are just large language models, trained to predict the next word,” I countered again, arguing for humanity. “But maybe that’s just what we do?” He replied, “When you’re a baby you can’t differentiate between a…” he looked around for something, “a green tree and the blue sky behind it,” he waved his hand at the oak tree beside the road. The mountains engulfed it and the sky definitely wasn’t blue. “You know, we grow up and as we do we learn things. Like we learn what a cat is by seeing cats. We teach an A.I. what a cat is by showing it thousands of images of cats! There’s no difference!”
It was hard not to find the topic terrifying, “It’s scary to think of them controlling intercontinental ballistic missiles…” Serena said and the conversation shifted to politics and politicians and their rules. How would a system look run by these things? What was it like now anyway? Serena said it was scary how some people have unimaginable power, how they can make all the rules. Morgan said they couldn’t make all the rules. They could never change the real rules.
Like King Cnut, I added from the back, moving his throne to the seashore to watch the tide come lapping at his toes. He knew he couldn’t change the real rules.
We came out of the mountains and down to Conwy and the coast. Conwy was impressive. The walls were monumental. It was impressive now in a world of skyscrapers, it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like 750 years ago. For the Welsh enemies of Edward I it must have felt like the end of the world. For many thousands, the invasion was. Now the castle’s a tourist attraction. Every generation faces its shocks. The end of the world’s always been just over the hill.
Nevertheless, there’s one thing I was quite sure of as I looked at the vast stone battlements. Monumental as they were, they definitely weren’t sentient…
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