How to grow a beard

It would be around this time of year the chicks were ready for pickup at Bonnie’s Hatchery in downtown Elmira. Driving past the other day we were reminded of a visit more than 40 years ago. 

Our neighbour, as good a soul as one could hope to meet, had us under wing that day. He was and is a farmer, trained by his own father who was a market gardener. At last count, the secrets of plant propagation and tricks of growing produce and flowers sold at the St. Lawrence market in Toronto, now hovers around the fourth, possibly fifth, generation.

While waiting for him to do his business, we stumbled across a book tucked in the seats. It was a very plain paperback without much in the way of illustration, but we recall the title easily: How to Grow a Beard.  

Apart from the odd cousin at that time, we didn’t know too many people sporting beards – why would our neighbour want to grow a beard? Raised well enough to not go pawing through its pages out of respect to its rightful owner, we decided instead to ask what it was about.

It turned out the title was a bit of a misnomer. It was a metaphor for the spiritual journey taken by the Amish and Mennonite faith. There are so many twists and turns within those religions we can’t quickly summarize it, but it had to do with living a simpler life, less reliant on government, technology and so on.

We have been lucky over the years to make the acquaintance of those who subscribe to these ideals. Industrious and hardworking, devoted to family and their church, they can also be the truest of friends – happy to assist neighbours in need.

It should be little surprise that the age of the internet, smart homes and the oncoming tsunami of artificial intelligence gaining ground each day concern us. Juxtaposing that simpler life of not long ago with an easier life dependent on technology has made for quite a mental debate in recent days. Cutting grass and tending gardens provided plenty of time to ponder the ultimate price of coupling with the digital world.

We were aghast months back when an opinion poll of Germans suggested willingness to forego passports by installing a scannable chip in the forearm showed many supported the idea.

A straw poll in the last few weeks of various people indicated half of our small group thought enhanced abilities by tethering directly with artificial intelligence would be worth looking at. Expanding their capabilities, whether it be memory, ability to process ideas, or analyze paperwork currently done by desktop and mobile devices, would be very handy. Others, about half of the group, expressed a measure of satisfaction that they’d reached an age where they didn’t need to consider plugging in.

These feelings about the future and technologies weaving in with humanity are scary enough that many of the pioneers in this field are expressing grave concerns and requesting a pause on such activities. If indeed the goals were to improve humanity’s plight, that would be one thing. But as we know, good inventions almost always get used for evil. Someone, for nefarious or competitive reasons, will always step outside the pact and while regulation is needed, we suspect it is already too late.

Some industries sheltered in recent years by transformative change will now be impacted by artificial intelligence. Quicker processing will negate hours of work, which on the surface sounds good, but how then do we keep a populace happy and productive?

The search for meaning in life and where we all fit in the grand scheme of things is not a new phenomenon. It is natural and reflects the progress of humankind over the course of centuries. 

AI however, adds a dimension to the evolutionary cycle we find unsettling in the extreme.