Monday, May 25, 2009

Don't Shoot -- I'm Human!

Are we catching up to the future, or is it the other way around?

As I explained last year, I am a guilty fan of the Terminator series, both the movies and the TV show. But what began back in the 1980's as a fanciful exploration of time and fate has turned into a warning sign on the entrance to the Twilight Zone. It remains to be seen if the series will be able to reach its final conclusion before reality has passed it by.

The premise of the movies is that in the near future we humans (let's be more specific: American humans) will turn over control of our weapons to an artificial intelligence system dubbed "Skynet." No doubt this will be done with the best of intentions, to insure our national security. However, due to a small flaw in its programming -- it is, after all, only version 1.0, and we all know what that means -- Skynet decides that humans are the enemy (an arguable assumption) and sets out to exterminate them all. Or rather, us all. It does this by using the nuclear weapons at its disposal to wipe out all the world's major cities, and then directing its fleet of walking, crawling, and flying intelligent robots to hunt down the survivors. Fun!

Our "salvation" from this fate depends on a few time travelers keeping young John Connor alive to lead the resistance and win the war against the machines. They had better hurry up, though, because the date of the big catastrophe is rapidly approaching -- 2018 is only 9 years away -- and by that time we may actually have a real Skynet on our hands. At any rate the intelligent warrior robots are already under construction, and moralists are hastening to catch up with ways to instill values and safeguards into their artificial minds.

Just as in the movies, this is being done with good intentions. The goal, believe it or not, is "saving lives," by which the military means killing the enemy without endangering any friendly personnel. This means fewer of Our Boys will have to stand up and be shot at. But the designers also claim to believe that robots will eventually be able to make better decisions under combat conditions than humans can. With no fear of their own destruction and no emotional clutter to get in their way, they will be able to coolly evaluate threats, identify friend from foe, and minimize what is blithely termed "collateral damage," such as destroying mosques or small children that happen to be in the way.

The intentions may be good, but anyone who has a feel for the current state of artificial intelligence must have serious qualms when they look at some of the weapons-bristling hardware rolling off the production lines. Stop for a moment and think about the last time you chatted with one of those creepy telephone robots that AT&T has planted as their first line of defense against their customers:

"Hello. How may I help you? ... You can say, Pay my bill, What is my balance, Start new service, Suspend my service ...."

"Um, I want to report some noise on the line. I'm getting like a clicking--"

"OK. I understand you want rate information. Is this correct? You can say Yes ..."

"No, I--"

"... or No."


"I'm sorry. I did not understand your response. Please say--"

I say, let's give this thing some guns and missiles and send it out to the front! Maybe the Afghan tribesmen can knock some sense into its head.

This is not to say I don't believe artificial intelligence is possible. On the contrary, I think it is now inevitable, and will someday surpass our own. A wonderful detail in the novel, The Accidental Time Machine, is the distant future in which the time traveler is told that science is still studied, but not by humans because it is far too complicated.

My complaint is that we are not there yet, but the military (whose own intelligence is a notorious oxymoron) is rushing onward anyway, damn the robots and full speed ahead. There has already been at least one "friendly fire" incident when a robotic antiaircraft battery opened up on some people -- who were not even flying at the time -- at an exhibit of weaponry in South Africa. You can imagine the programmers protesting that it was just a glitch and has already been fixed in the new release.

It would be much better to wait until we can have an intelligent discussion with these manufactured minds. Once we get to the point where they lecture us on the insanity of war, then maybe it will be safe to turn things over to them. Till then, we will all be nothing but potential targets. And if it comes to a war with the machines, as predicted in Terminator, I note that we have not invented time travel yet, so my money would be on the robots.




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