Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Welcome To The Machine

Why would anyone in their right mind place their lives, or the lives of anyone they even remotely care about, in the hands of a computer?

I have never met, nor do I ever expect to meet, a piece of technology that functions perfectly at all times and in all places.  Oh sure, I have a number of decidedly low-tech machines, like A/C units, a refrigerator, a microwave, a washing machine, etc. - that do reasonably well, given regular cleaning and maintenance.  But I bought my first piece of major electronic gear - an IBM 8086 computer - back in 1986, and I have been pulling my hair out over every successive purchase ever since.

The fact of the matter is that electronics, and the software that controls them, are susceptible to all sorts of problems.  Random electrical spikes, buggy code and the notorious "ghost in the machine" that plagues complex networks mean that putting one's life in the hands of a computer is tantamount to suicide.

Of late, self-driving cars and robots have all been the rage.  Uber in Singapore has fielded a fleet of driverless taxis.  Robotic and robot-assisted surgery is coming online.  Autonomous aircraft and boats are quickly becoming the military toys of choice.  In fact, artificial intelligence is being built into nearly every kind of device and appliance you can think of.

I love technology.  It can be very entertaining and certainly I have had a long career using some of the most cutting-edge communications technology available.  I am by no means a Luddite.  I regularly use tablets, laptops, cell phones, work stations, and very complex networks for lighting and sound.

But if you ask me to put my life, or anyone else's, in the hands of a machine that doesn't have a trained human operator controlling it, then I politely but firmly decline.

Not only are machines subject to all sorts of subtle and random quirks, there is also the matter of government and corporate back doors, and the ever-enthusiastic hackers who find breaking and entering electronic locks an irresistible challenge.  It's bad enough that organizations can build eerily detailed profiles of individuals based on their internet activity, but to put one's physical self and well-being in the hands of those organizations is deeply disturbing.

There are two things we can say with a great degree of certainty: machines do not always work perfectly, and lust for power will always lead some people to try and control other people.

Not only have driverless car deaths started to rise in the very short period this technology has been in the wild, but there is even discussion of programming these vehicles to sacrifice the lives on-board if the vehicles programming determines it will save other lives.  I don't know about you, but the latter is one decision that only I want to make for myself and those in the car with me.  As for the former, one of the creepiest scenes in Minority Report is when the "authorities" take over Tom Cruise's car and attempt to bring him in.

It appears that the individual is increasingly being asked to forfeit not only the right and responsibility of making one's own decisions, but to hand that right over to machines whose only capacity for making those decisions is based entirely on algorithms designed by someone else.  Furthermore, those algorithms are in the control of organizations that historically cannot be trusted, or even worse, individuals who have hacked the system for either random or targeted malfeasance.

It seems to me that this trend represents a massive stride backward in the development of humanity.  While the technology is certainly amazing in itself, it represents a complete surrender of humans from the social, political and philosophical battle for free will and independence.  Our most basic rights of self-determination and liberty are being laid at the altar of our creations, so that we are no longer the masters of our creativity, but are becoming slaves to it.

Europe has probably the most sophisticated train system in the world.  It is run by massive automated hubs across well over a dozen countries, and has been developed over the past 50 years.  For the most part, it runs rather efficiently, moving thousands of people daily through multiple countries.  However, when a glitch occurs, it results in the deaths of dozens, even hundreds of people, and even more horrific injuries.  These glitches result from a simple error in any one of hundreds of sensors and variables that affect everything from track switches to acceleration and braking timing.  The computers have no way to check the validity of their choices and feel no weight of responsibility for the lives they control.

No matter how advanced the intelligence of the machines, they cannot feel or empathize, and at best can only simulate these things to a living observer, who might be fooled into interpreting them as genuine.  In reality, though, the machines are only running complex algorithms that project what the authors intend, and not what the machine actually experiences.

At the moment, large numbers of people are experiencing excitement and curiosity over the novelty of these technologies.  What is deeply concerning is that, through government regulation and corporate lobbying, there may be no choice once the novelty has worn off.  Once the technologies are ubiquitous and the systems of modern life are completely dependent on them, it will be very difficult to turn back, to say the least.  Even more disturbing is the possibility of being compelled to accept this surrender to the machine to satisfy the lust for power on the parts of a very few people, whether for the financial benefit of building the infrastructure, or the more nefarious need to enslave.

We must decide immediately, both individually and collectively, to resist the novelty and shun the technology.  Not only does it represent a significant threat to life and limb, but an even more grave long-term threat to the rights and dignity of the individual.  It is bad enough that we should lose our right to self-determination to other humans, but to the cold and insensitive calculations of a machine represents a wholly new and unique development in human history.  Should the machines prove capable enough, it may require the utter destruction of civilization to free ourselves, if it is at all possible.  I don't think it overstates the case to say that once installed, there may be no way to uninstall it.  The machines may well prove better capable of repairing and replicating, than humans are at tearing down and destroying, and certainly the machines could determine that we are enough of a bother to exterminate our species.

It would be ironic that humanity's long effort to get someone else to do the dirty work and take the blame may ultimately be the end of our brief and fragile existence.

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