As we move towards machines anticipating the every need and desire of humans, what is the value of anticipation?
Moving north through the Arctic Circle, I have witnessed the end of two Polar Nights, bringing the first sunrise for several weeks, as eagerly anticipated today, it seems, as it would have been to ancient hunter-gatherers. Outside a farmhouse in Lapland, I gazed at the sky through a gap in a forest, and waited for that first sign of sunrise. As I noted a subtle light change, I heard the huskies furiously barking.
The next day, 30 km north, the sun again rose for the first time in ages over a Sami village where once, and maybe still, the long anticipated return to light would bring forth offerings and ceremonials. Further north still, I'd soon mark yet another Polar Night ending. My hosts have a sign on their kitchen wall: "Sun comes back 16/1" with a smiley face.
So much of what happens in the heavens is predictable, and that ability to tie down an event in time is nothing new, but increasingly sought after, as technology aspires to anticipate to the nth degree so that little—nothing?—is left to chance.
Total eclipses are computed years ahead. And now, I learn, an app will talk you through taking the perfect photos; just plug in your headphones and obey the commands. The pre-programmed event will simply happen for you, even under cover of cloud.
So, I've been thinking about the AI question in the Arctic Circle, fresh from the seasonal round of religious, secular, and pagan festivals. And the main reason most of us have travelled here is to witness that hybrid of science and mythical wonder, the Aurora Borealis, with all our senses.
It is a season keenly anticipated, and commercially harvested but which, despite the efforts of predictive data, proves surprisingly elusive. The terms 'hunting' and 'chasing' the Northern Lights are not used without reason. In a week I have seen the sky dancing green on four nights. Not a bad result. Particularly when the predictions I generated on my laptop said activity would be quiet. Albeit predictions qualified with a nod to the phenomenon's unpredictability.
I had anticipated seeing my first Aurora for many years. But no amount of planning, or technology, would guarantee that I could witness the event at a place in time. The factors are complex and the probabilities weigh up. Even local aurora hunters rest in the caveat that even with clear, cold nights, or dense cloudy skies, 'one never can tell...'.
And sure enough, the machine says 'no chance' just as I look out the cabin window to see the first faint veil of green. I realise a giddy, and growing, anticipation.
Out beside the frozen lake cameras whirr, whirr, and are re-set. Years of Bucket Shop Lists are ticked, the Lights are caught in the net. And then posted online.
I walk away from the crowd, forgo a camera, and simply watch the sky unfolding as it has done for aeons. What will the program be tonight? A slow moving Dance of the Seven Veils strung across the Milky Way? Or a rapid Busby Berkeley routine as the sky kicks up its ruffles of red? The green ripples swoop and sway for an hour.
Would I want a machine to tell me precisely when and what was going to appear? No thanks. The anticipation is a vital part of the moment. And this spectacle's USP is luck and patience. There's no app for that.
All I can do is use my own eyes to watch the sky, and wait til the last veil drops. And even then I walk back through the snow looking over my shoulder, anticipating, just in case.