Opinion: Generating a conundrum with artificial intelligence

Opinion: Generating a conundrum with artificial intelligence

How far should we test the limits of AI with regard to whisky?

Thoughts from... | 03 May 2024 | Issue 199 | By Liza Weisstuch

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Traditionally, the art of whisky making has relied heavily on human intuition and experience. Distillers carefully monitor factors such as fermentation time, temperature, and cask ageing to ensure the final product meets their exacting standards. This hands-on approach has been integral to preserving the quality and consistency of Scotch whisky for generations.


In recent years, distilleries have begun exploring how AI can enhance various aspects of whisky production. One area where AI shows particular promise is in optimising the blending process. Blending whisky involves combining different malt and grain whiskies to achieve a desired flavour profile, a task that requires a keen palate and years of experience.


By leveraging AI algorithms, distillers can analyse vast amounts of data to identify subtle flavour profiles and predict how different whiskies will interact when blended together. This technology can help streamline the blending process, leading to more consistent and innovative whisky expressions.


“Innovative” might be the key word there. And I mean that with a huge measure of irony. This is the part of the column — the column I’ve authored for years — where I reveal that I did not write the preceding three paragraphs. In fact, they were not written, per se, at all. They were generated. They are the outcome of my first foray into ChatGPT, or Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer, the OpenAI-developed chatbot that uses some kind of black magic called prompt engineering to churn out any sort of written content based on, well, nearly everything in the world, it seems.


The title, ‘Blending Tradition with Technology: The Intersection of Scotch Whisky and Artificial Intelligence’, and those first three and a subsequent 10 paragraphs were based on my simple prompt: “Write an article about Scotch and AI.” In less than 10 seconds, I had a 700-word ‘article’ (sub-headlines and all) on the topic, including some flowery introductory context, which I didn’t include here because, to be frank, it was wretched. (For reference, the text on this page adds up to about 700 words.)


I was prompted (yes, humans can still be ‘prompted’, too) to embark on this experiment because I’m presently working on a piece for this publication featuring insight from various industry insiders about how AI can help, or harm, the whisky industry in our mad rush towards doom– errr… the future. As I speak to people from all parts of the industry, I am heartened to hear that most cast doubt on the idea that any kind of mechanised anything can enrich the industry in any way beyond that which mechanisation currently does. Also, AI is exceptionally useful when it comes to analysing vast sets of data. You’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for the feature, but for those interested in a spoiler, I can reveal that it’s unlikely we’ll be dealing with a digital master blender or master taster any time soon. This real-life reporting stands in contrast to the ChatGPT-generated ‘information’ above.


Nearly every day I encounter some headline or news segment or narrative article speculating on how AI will be the demise of everything from urban infrastructure to the medical industry to manufacturing to news reporting to cooking. Even the arts, the very essence of being human, are at risk. And on that note, let’s thank the artists, particularly comedian Sarah Silverman, for spearheading the lawsuits contending that OpenAI violates copyright law by training the algorithms that power services like ChatGPT on comedians’ and writers’ work.


I recently saw a post on Instagram that read: “I think the best response I’ve seen to AI-anything is, ‘Why should I bother reading something that nobody could be bothered to write.’” I felt seen. Whether ChatGPT is another symptom of modern society’s insistence on instant gratification coupled with a general laziness will only be proven by sociologists and psychologists. For now, I’ll leave it to the artistic scientists, like distillers, and logic-minded artists to demonstrate minute by minute that emotionally rooted thoughtfulness and human instinct might be what saves us from the technical monsters we created. 

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