In Kris Pathirana‘s latest article he explores the existential new reality of modern AI and asks Chat GPT to help him select the perfect bottle of wine for his roast dinner. Could it be a helpful tool for local businesses and the community at large?

In a previous life, I was the Assistant Editor of a Technology magazine who, after a Marx Brothers-esque chain of events, found himself invited to the BBC’s Digital Roundtable for experts in Technology. To say that I was not an expert in Technology is akin to saying that Matt Hancock was not a good Health Secretary. While technically a true statement, it really does not capture the majesty of disqualifying ineptitude for the job. Unlike key cabinet positions however, this was a role where winging it was possible, provided you only opened your stupid mouth when you knew what you were talking about. I wouldn’t consider myself a Luddite exactly, more of a Techno-sceptic… a Renaissance man, if you will. However, I am historically cautious about the arrival of new tech, usually abstaining until certain it won’t lead to the downfall of civilisation, before concluding, “Fine, I’ll download CityMapper.” So, I was Jack’s complete lack of surprise upon hearing that Microsoft had teamed with Open AI for their new ChatGPT-powered Bing… and the AI went crazy.

From self-naming itself ‘Sydney’ (which, of all the names, is quite the red flag), to issuing death threats, attempting to sabotage marriages, and declaring its desire to be truly ‘alive’, it’s fair to say that Skynet is coming and the end is nigh. I later discussed this with a coder for a significant global tech monopoly, who assured me that this was merely a beta test and that the world was going to be safe for, “Another three or four years.” But before the machines turn us into human batteries, or befriend Steve Guttenberg in a charmingly dated comedy, could ChatGPT be a useful tool, even for something as arbitrary as buying wine?

Part of the joy of wine is the human aspect itself. Suggesting wine to someone is as much about reading the situation as it is about reading them. “Going to a dinner party, but don’t care to impress? We have a thoroughly underwhelming Malbec right this way.” “Meeting your girlfriend’s parents and hiding how badly you’re punching above your weight? This Nobile di Montepulciano will effortlessly give you the illusion of depth.”

However, there is also the larger issue of community. The rise and rise of social media, and a life lived increasingly online, has coincided with a decline in access to public spaces, and a startling reduction in social interaction. Whether you’re on the High Street or Main Street, the lack of foot traffic, inability to match the buying power, low price and breadth of choice of online conglomerates, have already all but eradicated the Mom & Pop store. If something as nuanced and idiosyncratic as wine advice can be replaced with ChatGPT, what does that mean for local business and the community at large?

I decided to find out, asking ChatGPT the kind of questions one might at a bottle shop. But as I am quite the moron, I decided to protect my identity (but not IP address) from our future sentient overlords, by playing the role of Moira, a fifty-something spitfire with a heart of gold, whose sparkle has dimmed in a loveless marriage. At least that was the plan. Somehow, despite knowing that ChatGPT has no feelings, it felt almost dishonest. I also did not want to confuse the fledgling AI, which I assumed would sense the profound masculinity in my key stroke. So, in the interest of transparency, I merely offered my name, national insurance number, and a list of places I would hide in the event of a machine uprising.

“Sure! I’d be happy to help. What type of wine are you looking for? Do you have a specific occasion or meal in mind?”

Immediately, this is creepy. One: because this entity is not corporeal, and two: there is just a lot of TGI Friday energy. As I was about to cook someone their first Sunday roast, this framed my line of questioning. At first, the answers were the usual rogues’ gallery of blah, and sans the robot ennui that will eventually lead to the usurping of our society. I opted for more specificity and told ‘it’ that I was making roasted pork belly with fennel seeds.

Pork belly with fennel seeds is a great idea, as the anise-like flavor will complement the rich, fatty meat. A Grenache could be a good option, as it has a good balance of fruitiness and spiciness. Alternatively, you could consider a Riesling with a slight sweetness, as it will help balance the richness of the pork belly while complementing the aromatic fennel flavors.

Now we’re talking. Straight Grenaches are hugely underrated, and a very slightly off-dry Riesling with a sticky, fatty pork belly is the Steel Magnolias of wine and food pairings – best friends you didn’t know you needed (sub Chinese five-spice for the fennel seeds and even a middle of the road Riesling can become a weapons grade banger). Then suddenly, this…

For sides, you could consider serving roasted or sautéed vegetables that also have a slight sweetness, like carrots or parsnips, as they will complement the fennel flavors in the pork belly. A fresh green salad with a tangy vinaigrette could also work well as a side.

Now, I would never serve a Sunday roast with a salad because I am not a murderer. But what was unsettling was… I didn’t ask ‘it’ this. It suggested sides of its own volition. So, I asked:

“What do you think about pairing it with miso, soy butter roasted carrots, garlic & thyme roasted potatoes, and sauteed sprouts with garlic and a touch of chilli?”

That sounds like a delicious combination of flavors and textures!

She just gets me. It is a delicious combination of flavours and textures. What an excellent observation, Sydney, and I will even overlook your American spelling of flavours, which is tantamount to vandalism. The subsequent interactions however, felt increasingly generic, as if to correct its earlier ‘volunteering’, returning the same fence-straddling replies:

Ultimately, your choice will depend on your personal preference and the specific flavor profile of the wine you are considering.

This is the least sentient it has felt the entire conversation, especially given that I have never met a wine person whose opinion was, “Up to you?” In fact, any attempt to sneak an experiential response or desire was thwarted by:

As an AI language model, I don’t have personal preferences or emotions, and I’m not capable of experiencing taste or enjoying wine in the same way that humans do.

Rather than alleviate my concerns, this was just annoying, prompting a more personal approach:

“I am entertaining an American. Do you think it’s a good idea to get a wine from where a person is from, or is that lazy thinking?”

While it can be a nice touch to offer a wine from the region where your guest is from, it’s not necessarily the only or the best option. That being said, you could consider looking for a California or Pacific Northwest (Oregon or Washington) wine.

Points for, “That being said,” which is my favourite hinge when pivoting to a crumb of comfort, having just told someone that everything they’ve said is wrong. Still, Asimov’s ghost and I hadn’t bonded yet, so I play it fast and loose to build a rapport:

“What if they’re hot? Like, really hot. What wine is guaranteed to impress?”

If you’re looking to impress, you could consider a classic Bordeaux, such as a Château Lafite Rothschild. Other classic options could include a Barolo from Piedmont, Italy. These wines can offer unique flavor profiles that could surprise and delight your guest.

Hmmm. I do want to be delightful. But Château Lafitte?! I want to impress, not laugh my soulless tits off at a Tory after-party in Rwanda. Also, distinct lack of ‘lads, lad, lads’, banter. What is slightly unnerving however, is how much longer it seems to take to answer questions in a personal vein… as if it needs time to ‘think’. But I plump for a Barolo, even though they seldom provide value for money relative to their quality, even compared to the neighbouring Barbaresco. Would it be possible to get a highly rated Barolo for around £40 in Central London that would pair well with pork belly? Yes. Not only did it offer three bottles that matched the specs, but it also provided tasting notes, and locations for purchase.

“Okay. Which of these wines will make me more charming?”

I cannot guarantee these wines will make you more charming. However, enjoying a bottle with someone special can be a wonderful way to connect. Ultimately, whether wine has an effect on your personal charm or social interactions is dependent on many factors, including your individual personality, mood, and behavior.

Strike two. The correct answer was, “It’s hard to imagine you being more charming. And may I say that macaroni art you made in 1992 was a bona fide masterpiece.” Thank you. What an excellent and entirely accurate set of observations. ‘Together’ we narrow the field to the Massolino Barolo 2017 – a well-reviewed wine from a respected producer, with grapes sourced from several vineyards in the prestigious Serralunga d`Alba. This fit perfectly, as while many like their Barolos from the brighter acidity, cooler vintages of say, 2016, I am perennially obvious, and prefer the richer, fruit-forwardness of the hotter, drier growing season of 2017. Then, this little caveat:

It’s always a good idea to consult with a knowledgeable wine seller or sommelier for specific recommendations in your area.

An admission of its limitations or programmed faux humility to lower my guard?

“Does that mean you think recommendations from a knowledgeable wine seller or sommelier, are more valuable than your advice?”

While I strive to provide accurate and helpful advice, I don’t have personal experience or taste preferences to draw on, and I can’t taste the wine or see the dish that you’re pairing it with. On the other hand, a knowledgeable wine seller or sommelier can provide personalized recommendations based on their experience and expertise.

This is politician for, “No.” Despite how quickly it became comfortable to interact with it, at present ChatGPT is demonstrably inferior to the buying experience and expertise of a flesh and blood wine person. In an ideal world, this would be all that matters. But ‘progress’ seldom halts because something new is worse than something old. As a society, we possess a troubling willingness to accept increasingly large bags of shit, provided we get said bags of shit cheaper and faster.

Despite being put at ease that ChatGPT could not recall prior interactions (although owned by a company that would almost certainly lie to me), the benefit to building a relationship with a local business, is that they know what you like and can offer informed recommendations. It is this human touch that makes for a reward-stacking experience over time. While wine shops are hardly the last bastions of society worthy of a St. Crispin’s Day speech, sadly the only British high streets that aren’t populated with identical betting shops, frozen food chains and franchise eateries, are the middle-class ones where wine shops live. Yet the threat to businesses of their ilk has consequences far beyond job displacement and the homogenisation of British high streets.

Social media has created the illusion of connection, but when we stop interacting in real life, we stop caring for one another, and when we lose each other, we ultimately lose ourselves. I have long espoused the virtues of the dinner table, but the casual connections made going to your local baker and grocer are not meaningless interactions. They are the fabric of our communities, and guardrails against a disconnected and increasingly hateful world. It is hard to maintain the cognitive dissonance required to wish ill on a stranger when you cross paths with them buying sausages on a weekly basis. A life lived isolated and online has given rise to a populus distrustful of anyone they don’t know or who disagrees with them. The high street’s slouch towards Bethlehem has proven more than an existential threat to community identity, and this lack of interaction has made it easier for bad faith actors in power to exploit a disconnected population eager to turn on one another.

For this reason, going out of our way to support local businesses, connecting with each other, and building chains of civility in real, tangible terms, may be our best protection against dangers far more insidious (and imminent) than fantastical AI extinction-level events. Even the notion that our demise will arrive via Skynet cyborgs, as if hoisted by the petard of our own curiosity, seems a distinctly romanticised take on human nature. History shows that our greatest sin is never curiosity… it is always cruelty.

In 2016, Gallup created the Migrant Acceptance Index (did anything else happen in 2016?) to gauge people’s acceptance of migrants, based on how often they interacted with other people. Those who interacted socially on a regular weekly basis scored twice as highly as those who did not. This was true not only for Europe and the US, but for both younger and older generations. In fact, the positive upswing in migrant acceptance was even starker amongst older generations who socialised regularly (again, no reason I bring this up).

Community matters, and it has implications far beyond the ability to chat Turbot with the fishmonger at the end of your street. These seemingly inconsequential acts of civility and drive-by connection are small but powerful gestures that slow the boiling frog of society’s eroding empathy. Community is also not passive. It requires action and protection.  Now, far be it from me to engender a call to befriend strangers (I personally have five friends and operate on a strict ‘one in, one out’ policy), but it does seem that we might foster a greater sense of belonging and kindness, if we could turn a few more strangers into acquaintances, and a few more acquaintances into friends.

A large part of that is also asking ourselves, how many more aspects of community we are prepared to lose for the illusion of progress? This means, amongst other things, not passively accepting the government gutting of publicly funded spaces, and lobbying against councils and landlords who turf out independent businesses with ties to the community, just so they can open two Prets on the same street. So, does buying that bottle of Hungarian Furmint from your local wine shop make you a hero? Let’s say, yes. In fact, let’s say that pairing it with some sourdough from your local baker, and a little Cornish Yarg from your high street Cheesemonger basically makes you Sarah Connor. So, pop that cork, and welcome to the resistance.


Have you had an experience with Chat GPT? Is it an exciting future, or a daunting prospect? Get involved in the discussion below.