Guernsey Press

Richard Graham: Artificial versus human intelligence

Parliamentary sketch writing might be taken over by artificial intelligence in the future, but for now the job continues to fall to Richard Graham. He offers his analysis of last week's States meeting...


There's been much fuss recently about the threat posed by artificial intelligence, or AI as those in the know refer to it.

Until last week, I thought Elon Musk was a new aftershave fragrance for men, but it turns out it’s a highly successful American businessman who may be the world’s richest man. Assembly-speak would refer to him as a high-net-worth individual. I’d call him stinking rich. I’d be surprised if Deputy Trott didn’t claim to be a close friend of his.

Mr Musk is the chief AI nerd of all AI nerds. He recently sat down with the UK prime minister to chat about AI. I was pleased to see that Rishi, not wishing to parade his own high-net-worth, was wearing one of his stringy ties from Next and his cut-off trousers for the occasion. Anyway, Mr Musk revealed that AI will soon be doing all the things that we mere humans do now. So the days of irritating parliamentary sketch writers like me are numbered. In future, all the mischievous leg-pulling of our politicians will be done by algorithm. I can hear the cheers ringing out wherever certain of our deputies are gathered. But they should be careful what they wish for. Are they sure that a computer programme can replicate my valuable role as a lightning rod for their frustrations? As a well-known misogynist, communist and general dimwit who is paid a fortune to write an ill-informed, scandalously biased political column, I serve as the ideal scapegoat for all the perceived injustices felt by our political elite. If they are misunderstood and undervalued by their public, then it is the likes of me who are responsible. How could they possibly dump the cause of their woes on the shoulders of an algorithm? Mine is a noble role, Mr Musk, and I won’t surrender it lightly.

Mind you, HI, human intelligence, can be just as scary as AI. Just look at last week’s States meeting. The Assembly, in the full knowledge that time was short, spent the first 80 minutes in deciding whether to debate the motion of no confidence in Policy & Resources before or after debating next year’s budget. How could such self-indulgent constitutional navel gazing arise? I offer a clue.

You’d think that with the world in a dreadful state, hardly anyone beyond our shores would give little Guernsey a second thought. Not so, according to two of the Assembly’s best-informed men of the world. The Middle East might be in turmoil, the most destructive war in Europe since 1945 might be locked in a bloodthirsty stalemate, the polar icecaps might be melting away and the next president of the USA might well be either doddery Joe Biden or that bloke with an orange face and huge red tie, and yet Deputy Inder and Alderney Representative Roberts both felt the need to issue States members with a sombre warning. ‘The world is watching us right now’, they intoned, knowingly. Seasoned attention seekers in the Assembly were probably delighted at this news, but even in their bubble of delusional self-importance they must have been surprised to learn that a deeply troubled world was desperate to learn whether a tiny parliamentary assembly in St Peter Port would decide to debate a motion of no confidence on 7 November or on 22 November. As they say, a butterfly alights on a twig and the whole world trembles.

Not for the first time, I was left thinking that the Vale and Alderney are over-represented in the Assembly. Deputy Taylor seemed to agree with me. Well, that’s how I interpreted his reaction to the delusions of grandeur he’d just heard. ‘Come off it, you must be kidding,’ he exclaimed in so many words as he sought to calm the Assembly. He had scanned news agencies across the world and had come across not one single mention of Guernsey. Not surprising, come to think of it, since only one person in a billion has ever heard of Guernsey, let alone knows where it is and is worried about what happens there.

The day never quite recovered from this bizarre start. Presenting the 2024 budget as P&R vice president, Deputy Helyar did his best to replace the fantasy of early morning with some overdue gravitas. He issued bleak warnings about the dire consequences of the Assembly’s repeated refusal to tackle the persistent structural deficit in government finances. He had the grace to admit that the inflation-breaching budget he was presenting, far from reducing the structural deficit, would only make it worse. In other words, the height of P&R’s ambition for States finances in the immediate future was to limit the extent to which they would deteriorate still further. In commending Deputy Helyar for taking only 15 minutes to present the budget, I suspect that his admirable quest for brevity was assisted by the absence of any good news in it.

So the scene was set for debating a total of 18 amendments to the budget. The first two were laid by Deputies Gollop and Le Tissier. For more than a year they had listened to P&R’s repeated pleas for members opposed to GST to come up with alternative options for raising revenues and had assumed that they meant it. Big mistake! The wrath of an outraged P&R duly dumped itself all over them.

What followed made for dreary knock-about stuff as a total of three hours, 50 minutes was spent debating two amendments that never had a chance in hell of being carried.

Hiding his exasperation well, the Bailiff concluded the first day’s business with a reminder that debates of amendments don’t require all members to spend precious time explaining how they intend to vote. I sensed that he knew, as I knew, that his advice would go unheeded.

And so it proved. Member after self-indulgent member concluded that silence and brevity were for others to observe. Amendments came and went as the Assembly inched its way like a groggy tortoise across the obstacle-strewn surface of the parliamentary landscape.

After two days of this disorientated crawl towards political hibernation, several ditches remained to be crossed, the widest and deepest being an ESC amendment to secure funding for the transformation of secondary and post-16 education.

As Deputy Le Tissier observed, ESC’s chosen tactic was to deploy emotional leverage to sway votes. Deputy Haskins made a spirited and bold defence of ESC’s argument for getting the States deeply into debt. I describe him as bold because he chose to begin his 20-minute speech just five minutes before the members’ lunch break was due to begin; their restlessness could be felt across the airways. He didn’t help his case by seeming to assert that when it came to caring about our students, he and anyone supporting ESC enjoyed a monopoly of sincerity.

I think this was ill-advised on two counts. First, it smacked of a distasteful hallmark of the current Assembly, namely that of sanctimoniously claiming moral superiority for one’s own side of an argument. Secondly, it exposed to public view ESC’s curious concept that caring about our students consists of saddling them with a mountainous debt the moment they finish their education without offering them a clue about how to pay it back as taxpayers over the first 30 years of their working lives. A stronger disincentive to the young to remain and work in Guernsey is hard to imagine. It’s the equivalent of parents buying expensive Christmas presents for their children on the never-never and then inviting them to pick up the debt.

Some of Deputy Haskins’ ESC colleagues didn’t fare too well. One read from a prepared script without appearing to understand a word of it. For a moment I thought that AI had already invaded the Assembly. Deputy Cameron, predictably off-message, was equally predictably set upon by the Assembly’s establishment in what seemed to me like a concerted frenzy of points of order and points of correction designed to put him off.

Partisan politics were as always in evidence. On Thursday morning Deputy Prow criticised an amendment from the E&I president, Deputy de Sausmarez, because it allegedly set a precedent for raising hypothecated, ring-fenced revenue (it didn’t), but by the afternoon there he was, enthusiastically backing a pro-ESC amendment that was so obviously the very embodiment of hypothecated, ring-fenced revenue that even someone as dim as me could spot it. In a vain effort to deny he was being inconsistent, he performed a series of dazzling verbal gymnastics that would see him among the medals in next year’s Olympics. A semantic triple somersault was followed by a double twist and backflip ending in what sounded like a very painful splits. It made entertaining listening, but left Deputy Burford and others unimpressed.

When 5.30pm on the final day arrived, members seemed astonished to have run out of time with at least a further day’s worth of business untouched. It was as if they had been left stranded by circumstances beyond their control rather than by their own inefficient conduct of parliamentary business.

It hadn’t been a complete waste of time because debate of the ESC amendment had allowed P&R and its supporters to reveal that their new mantra is ‘We plan to borrow enough money to get us completely out of debt’. Catchy, eh! As Deputy Brouard astutely observed, certain members should avoid looking at Hansard to see what they have been saying as recently as two weeks ago; the shock might do them serious harm.

P&R’s volte face means that huge borrowing is no longer impossible without GST and punitive corporate taxation, previously dangerous and taboo, will in future scarcely touch the sides of deep company pockets. And most wonderful of all, Deputy Ferbrache has planted a magic money tree, confident that future States will tend it with loving care.