Over Easy: The end is near


For the Valley News

Published: 05-26-2023 11:00 PM

This column was written by a human.

It may be among my last, because sources close to the Valley News have told me that the newspaper is developing artificial intelligence to replace some of the writers who currently inform, amuse and/or irritate readers. Among them: me.

I’m told that columnists Willem Lange — the Cal Ripken of the keyboard — and garden writer Henry Homeyer are also on the target list.

“They’ll deny it, of course,’’ said my source, who asked not to be identified because, well, he doesn’t want to be identified. “I stopped reading your stuff a long time ago, but I liked the one you wrote about your dog years back and, what the heck, I thought I’d warn you.”

Although the Valley News doesn’t have the unlimited budget of a Meta or Google, it is devoting all available resources to the secretive effort. My source revealed: “To replace you, they’re using an old Radio Shack TRS-80 that was stored in the back room under dusty typewriter ribbons and dried rubber cement. It’s not much of a computer, but the programmers said not all that many bytes are needed to match your, um, depth.”

Apparently, to create MackieGPT, it merely took the entry of keywords like “Red Sox,” “old radios,” “I like to walk,’’ “my wife, Dede,” “cargo pants,” “mud season,’’ ‘baby boomer,” “watching ‘Jeopardy!,’ ” “Ledyard bridge balls,” “I miss Woolworth’s” and “weather complaints” to produce new versions of my work.

“Even a TRS-80 running on floppy disks can put out decent copy about frost heaves and roundabouts,’’ my source told me. “You should have seen this coming and done something to expand your repertoire.”

MackieGPT has already written experimental 2024 columns about Dartmouth graduation (You won’t change the world unless you stop jaywalking), the annual grueling inspection of my 2007 Honda Fit (The radio works fine, but everything else is kind of iffy) and possible Social Security cuts (I won’t take this sitting down because at my age I have to get up every now and then to stretch).

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“It’s more efficient and cheaper than you because it doesn’t have to stop to remember who sang ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ or the name of the department store in the 1980s on the Miracle Mile,” my source said. In less time than it takes to find the remote control, my memory popped out Ethel Merman and the long-gone King’s. Two points for me.

But in general, I said, I understood. “At my age, it’s not who you know, but how long it takes to remember his or her name.”

Apparently, it’s taking more computing power to emulate Homeyer’s writings, “because he has actual information in his columns and doesn’t just make things up about weeds and blights like you would.”

Willem-AI is a work in progress. “The program can’t reconcile his age with how active he is,’’ my source tells me. “Somehow it’s been exposed to reality TV and keeps trying to place Willem on the ‘Naked and Afraid’ survival show, which just isn’t right at all.”

There will be copyright issues, undoubtedly, but LawbytesGPT is already providing legal services to the Valley News, and is said to be ready to unleash a withering onslaught of vaguely threatening emails. My source warned, “They will own your writing persona and maybe a lot more.”

As Jack Benny used to say, “Well!”

Artificial intelligence has been on my mind a lot lately, but it gives me a headache to think about its implications, in the same way that contemplating the Big Bang (and what existed before it) is beyond me.

As it is, I rely on my wife for cognitive oversight. She reminds me to shave more carefully when we are going out to someplace nice and to check my pants for unfortunate peanut butter stains when I am going anywhere at all.

She does the books and oversees crucial details concerning our little retirement empire, and I say amusing things and sing song snippets to her in return:

Fly me to the moon

Let me play among the stars.

Let me see what spring is like

On Jupiter and Mars.

In other words, hold my hand.

In other words, baby, kiss me.

This sounds kind of romantic, but I often just sing the first two lines over and over and over, because that is how this human brain works, and it can cross the Rubicon into annoyance. There is a time to sing, and there is a time to carry the recycling to the garage like she asked me to.

But she always forgives me, because I am only human. I don’t think when AI rules the world things will be nearly as rosy.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.