Good Guys and Bad Guys

Plato meets Billy the Kid and the artificial intelligence algorithms shaping your future, like it or not.

“And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good—Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” An excellent question, one taken from a Platonic dialogue—almost, which is to say almost asked under a plane tree, our old friend Socrates chatting with his occasional interlocutor Phaedrus. In this case, in the shade of the ancient Greek sycamore, the topic is love, but for some reason the conversation turns to rhetoric: modes of expression, how you say something well or badly. Truth be told, Phaedrus has been on my mind of late—on a few minds—since that almost-Platonic quote serves as the epigraph to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book I read at age 17 and that made me ready to head out across the country on an old Honda bike), but author Robert M. Pirsig is no longer working on a motorcycle called himself on this plane; he shuffled off this mortal coil in April. Yet the question remains: Good? Not good? Or some of both?

Enter the Kid, our cover fella, sometimes going by William or Henry or Billy, cattle rustler and charming ladies’ man, gunned down by a former buffalo hunter and bartender and gambler turned sheriff. In border territory he lived and died, a time when who was in the right and who in the wrong depended on which judge in the employ of which businessman was issuing the warrant.

So, the past, reimagined—something fiction lets us do exceedingly well.

Enter the Future (it’s here, kid): time of high-powered, cloud-computing artificial intelligence, already used to identify terrorist threats and assign criminals risk scores for setting bail and sentences. And how’s that algorithm working out when it comes to advising your doc or when that new chatbot quickly learns how to spout white supremacist slurs?

Let’s file that last part under badly.

In Phaedrus, conversation turns to grasshoppers, music, justice. In these pages, no grasshoppers. Instead, among the questions posed: What can a biologist learn from an engineer? What of these islands sinking under the sea? What of the priest whose discernment leads him to say, “This is no longer my calling”? What of the president of a country who embraces power and refuses to let go—for decades? What of the heiress to the rifle fortune and the dreams that haunt her? What of the playwright whose work the Leader says will not be staged? Why does the high school basketball coach ask his players to say a prayer after every game? Why is the student from halfway around the world afraid to go home? What sparks the mind and heart of the engineering professor who teaches for half a century? How about that superbloom?

Maybe that’s where the grasshoppers are to be found.

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