One morning earlier this week I found a cicada on the patio. It wasn’t one of the annual cicadas which are big, dark green, and have dark eyes. They have bulbous thoraxes and heads that, even for bugs, seem weird, like they’ve been produced in some kind of bubble machine. This one was small, solid black, more streamlined, and it had red eyes. The thirteen-year cicadas are back, or at least some are back. The big cluster isn’t supposed to come out until next year—somewhere I still have a t-shirt that a friend of mine made with a picture of a cicada and “Thirteen Year Reunion-2011”. I hope he’ll do another one next year.
The corpse was gone just a few minutes later when I went out to take a picture, probably taken by a bird, but I thought it was just an early riser, which is a sad thing for the cicadas. They spend thirteen years underground, literally sapping the life out of trees, although the trees don’t seem to mind, or even notice, then, when they emerge, they shed their old skins, emerge as adults, and only have a few hours, a day at the most, to find a mate before they die.
Imagine being a teenager and, after finally getting through the worst of puberty, having only about a month to find a partner before you die. It shouldn’t be that hard to imagine since I’m pretty sure most of us who went through puberty felt something like that at some point, but that’s another story.
The good news, that I hope didn’t come too late for that one cicada, is since then I’ve found the shells of others, and I even heard one in a tree this morning, ratcheting up its mating song, so it seems like we’re getting a preview of what in a year’s time should be a grand performance. Since the thirteen-year cicadas are smaller than their annual cousins they’re slightly quieter, but what they lack in quality they make up for in quantity.
I also had a revelation about Artificial Intelligence which, because it’s being overhyped in the news now in spite of being poorly defined and, in all its forms, not really intelligent, has been on my mind too much. The latest thing I’ve heard is that at least one fast food chain is planning to replace workers who take drive-thru orders with chatbots, which is just going to mean fast food places will get your drive-thru order even more wrong than they do now.
A lot’s already been said about how ChatGPT and other AI programs really aren’t “intelligent”—they just remix and regurgitate; there’s no mind behind what they do. I’m not sure how much mind there is behind what the cicadas do either—in a sense nature has “programmed” them to emerge in a swarm roughly every thirteen years, which is supposed to be a survival mechanism, although it also means that for some lucky birds, snakes, frogs, and various mammals they’ll be able to gorge themselves on high-protein bugs, which, for them, will literally be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Still the cicadas are propelled by an internal drive. They act independently. A computer program won’t—and can’t–act without human input. It has no desire, no need to create.
The cicadas sleep, they sing, they die. Simple as they seem they’re still far ahead of anything artificial.