Fearing the small

Posted: 07.28.15

I was thinking about the Pluto flyby and a comment made by an older gentleman that he doubted we would see as much technological progress as he had, having seen the Wright Brothers (when he was 17) to the moon landing (when he was 84). I think the developments are just as spectacular, but will be miniaturized and virtual, nano devices, and AI, and deep learning—things that will have a profound effect on us, but that we can’t see, and may not even feel. I think it’s this invisibleness that is scaring people. 

NANO BOTS will flow through our systems making repairs in real time.
I, and others, have said, that technology works (best) when it’s invisible. It’s the self-conscious tech that frustrates us and makes us luddites. Most of that is the fault of the designers, who think the world is composed of people like themselves who enjoy diddling with knobs, entering passwords, and pushing buttons, being the slaves of the machine instead of the other way around. 

As technology shrinks, gets buried, and becomes virtual, we no longer interface with it directly, and that scares people—what is “it” thinking … ? It’s a little like-life. We don’t interface with each other’s brains directly when we communicate, and we usually ask ourselves, what is she/he thinking, or what will she/he do … ? 

THE GIGANTIC COMPUTING MACHINES with the bizarre names—SSEC, Eniac, Edvac, Binac, Mark I, II, and III, Rudy the Rooter, fightened the public and the press, and movies exploited the fear.
And from that springs the fear of loss of control, and the terror that machines (using the term eu-phemistically) will develop, or be endowed with self-awareness and sentience. And when that happens, assuming the machines are based on cold logic—if this, then that—those machines will cancel out our biases, our yeah-buts … and even our deeply held beliefs. And that’s when we can’t game the system, when we can’t pad our expense report, or cut in line. Our sense of entitlement is likely to be revealed as utterly unmerited. Life could get fair— who wants that!? 

Several rich guys, who obviously have a lot to lose, have sounded a warning about the dangers of AI, suggesting the Terminator is just waiting to be booted up. Ironically, these same rich guys are funding the development of the new super-smart, independent devices and systems. 

And feeding their bullhorn fears are reports like the Rensselaer Artificial Intelligence and Reasoning (RAIR) Laboratory experiment, which demonstrated that three robots could intuit the answer to the classic King’s Wise Men puzzle, which serves as a test of the awareness of the self. 

What the test showed was a logical and a mathematical correlation to self-consciousness was possible, suggesting that robots can be designed in such a way that their actions and decisions resemble self-awareness and that’s close enough. Close enough to give us bad dreams and make us fear the jig is up. We might have to grow up and take responsibility for our actions, for poverty, global warming, wars, and corrupt distribution systems that prolong diseases. Or maybe we’ll have to abdicate and let the robots and computers take over and manage things.

It was ever thus—in the mid- 1940s, the reaction by the public to reports about the new “electronic brains” was fear. 

The electronic brains (machines that filled a room with vacuum tubes) would take control and issue orders instead of taking them. Just how these fragile old computers were going to control anything was never explained, but those fears were picked up by Hollywood and amplified by the very real horror of the atomic bomb and the very imagined consequences in the movies. Giant carrots, anyone? (The Thing from Another World) Rampaging Jello? (The Blob). Virulent funghi (The Attack of the Mushroom People) or stalking plants (Day of the Triffids). 

Today we’ve shrunk the problem, but we’re just as fearful. Our bodies will be invaded by nanobots, controlled by an evil AI, Asimov’s law of robots will be discarded, if it was ever even implemented. The Terminator and his pals are coming for us. 

PRIS AND ROY are androids you'd like to know better.

And yet, how could we live without our robots? What happens in your place when the Internet goes down? When the server or your machine won’t boot up? When the cable goes out, or your phone doesn’t work? But that’s different you say, we control those machines. Oh yeah, ask Siri about that. OK Google, I am a helpless human who can’t read a map, or look up an address, where is the nearest McDonalds? 

Yeah, we’re in control