Here’s a new word for you — well, probably new for most of us — schadenfreude.

It is defined as “pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.” We came across the word in a report about how a New Zealand tech company has devised a method of getting back at email scammers. It’s a painfully simple concept.

When you receive an email from Prince So-and-So in Nigeria telling you, in poor grammar and muddled syntax, you’ve won a fortune in the lottery, you can be fairly certain it’s a scammer somewhere on the planet seeking access to your personal financial data.

So, instead of clicking on the link conveniently provided by the bogus Nigerian prince, you forward the email to the company, where operators assign a bot to the task of besieging Prince Whatshisname with pestering emails, tying the scammer up for hours trying to figure out a cyber puzzle. The bot keeps the e-conversation going until the scammer gives up. Genius.

Such things are good to know, after hearing what experts have to say about artificial intelligence — the good and the bad — at the annual dinner of the Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County last week.

Most of us already use some form of artificial intelligence, usually via a smart phone, those pocket-sized computer/communications devices that can be more addicting than binge-watching “Blue Bloods.”

The consensus at last week’s gathering seemed to be that machines have a long way to go to achieve human intelligence. That, in and of itself, poses a problem — that machines can only do what human operators tell them to do. Thus, the “good and bad” of artificial intelligence is defined by the human condition.

Stephen Hawking, a physicist of some repute, has said machines will be in control within a century. Perhaps Hawking does not share the view that artificial intelligence will always rely on the human-operator component.

But it may not matter, because a few months after Hawking made the machine-domination theory disclosure, he also said mankind is less than 600 years from extinction.

Which raises an interesting question — might machines be better equipped to provide the solutions necessary to keep humanity from going extinct?

Hawking’s belief is that by 2600 the world’s population will be so large that people will be standing shoulder to shoulder, using so many of Earth’s resources generating heat that the planet will go up in flames.

We know, it sounds loony, but Hawking has demonstrated a talent for seeing things other folks don’t easily see. And one must admit that Earth’s population is expanding exponentially, with no signs that it will slow down.

According to Hawking, uncontrolled growth will be humanity’s downfall, such growth being the outcome of human greed and avarice. If artificial intelligence can be developed without those characteristics, mankind may have a chance after all.

But here’s the catch — humans are responsible for infusing machines with intelligence, and if machines somehow gain control of that developmental process, it will be out of human hands. Will it be a good machine, or a bad machine?

Lots of folks these days see the bad side of machinery, especially those who have recently acquired a new smart phone, only to realize the device is, apparently, much smarter than its owner, who has trouble figuring it out. You want to make a call but you tap the wrong icon. You want to answer a text message but where is the place to tap?

Is that good or bad? We see the problem — and it is us.

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