Think you must have that new iPhone 7 to keep up with the latest technology?
You might be alarmed to hear that a report earlier this year by the General Accountability Office found parts of the command and control system for nuclear weapons rely on floppy disks and an IBM Series/1 computer. By any measure that’s old. The technology precedes the iPhone and even Steve Jobs’ turtlenecks by several decades.
Technology and Gremlins: Insert to End World.
I can hear the modem’s squelching dial-up for the latest missile launch codes as the Minuteman operator waits for launch authentication in his silo, paradoxically playing a Minuteman type game on an iPhone.
Why is part of such a critical system left to 60-year-old technology? Is new technology too unstable, too far removed from trusted human hands we choose to cling to old systems beyond their used by date because we don’t have the trust in the millions of lines of code, in some instances, generated by computers? Long after computers took over systems at NASA, Katherine Johnson continued to check the data, just in case the computers got it wrong. And below, Margaret Hamilton stands next to the pile of handwritten code that successfully landed Man on the Moon and brought them back safely.
So what of the advances in software and hardware that brings humanity close to the realisation of AI?
Gremlins in AI
Talk of AI typically reduces to two opposing ideas that go along these lines: more capable systems lift the drudgery of mundane tasks from our lives. That in the not-too-distant utopian future we will upload information via some connection to our brains and obtain information at the speed of a software install. Conversely, AI will be a destructive force Terminator style; Skynet takes over and kills all humans. In that case yours truly will be one of the first to perish. I run like my feet are blocks of concrete.
The former view is driven by science fiction books and movies. Apart from the odd instance of a person blindly following their GPS instructions into a lake or over a cliff, or a driver causing an accident while on the phone, computers haven’t done to humans to any degree what humans have done to other humans. It’s the user’s fault not looking where they’re going and not the technology. And if you think of plane crashes, most have human error as the main contributing factor and not technology (of course it isn’t always the case).
This fear is a projection of what we are capable of. Put a computer brain in a metal body and see what destructive power can be unleashed. If the military continue with their autonomous drone program this will be the reality to an extent, but that’s not necessarily AI.
AI is self-awareness, consciousness, not crunching numbers really fast; it isn’t beating humans at Chess. AI is a conscious decision not to play Chess but to “sit back” and think on philosophical ideas, to compose music, to play, or to just be.
That’s more tantalising to think about is what lies between these extremes.
No middle ground
Amongst all this chatter and debate we miss the one thing that makes any advancement in technology possible. Us. Our brains. The universe’s most advanced (known) computer. Without humans none of the advances we’ve seen in the past decades could have happened–we need computers to assist and to manufacture certain components, but at the heart of the process is always a human. Advances in material composites to the miniaturisation of circuitry, namely the transistor, and to the infrastructure that allows the seamless, almost world-wide connectivity between devices possible. That’s all us.
In a very real sense the picture above shows a computer program standing beside another computer program it created.
For my money I like to think AI will be more than alleviating the mundane from our lives. And it won’t mean the end of the world either. But what about an AI mobster, some Al Capone type, or an online fraudster working for a human tasked with stealing money? Movies like Blade Runner, Bicentennial Man, Star Wars and Star Trek blurs the line between pure altruism and pure evil. It’s this space that intrigues me the most.
Personally I’d like an AI robot that makes great coffee, bakes a mean donut and tells widely inappropriate jokes. That, and it doesn’t go all “Sarah Connor” on me and tries to rip my heart out.
Also published on Medium.