computers

AI– Threat or Menace?


That-Was-The-Week-That-W-That-Was-The-Week-473964gc2smFrom the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on April 2, 2018

“Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.”

—Ray Kurzweil


We came of age imagining New Frontiers, an idyllic time of relative innocence when anything seemed possible: rockets that would travel to the moon like buses,  a permanent space station, and flying cars a la the Jetsons.  It was the go-go 50s and 60s, when an energized Team America sat astride the top of the world, with few limits on dreams and none on ambition. Optimism hung in the air like the scent of roses on a spring morning. 

In the America of the 1950s and 60s, the future was filled to bursting with promise.  A youthful and beloved president set the country a challenge to travel from the earth to the moon in a decade, which we did, though he did not live to see it.

Young people read about ENIAC, the first (room-sized) computer designed to compute artillery tables during WWII (and later used for nukes). Large mainframes followed; in went punchcards, out came reports. Even my high school had one. Science fiction writers, envisioning the future, foresaw robots who would reliably assist humans in a variety of tasks and, of course, adventures. As a boy, I had a toy Robby the Robot, a dutiful servant in the 1956 MGM science fiction film Forbidden Planet. Later on, as I begin to read science fiction, I encountered Isaac Asimov's original three laws of robotics.

Introduced in his 1942 short story "Runaround" and included in I, Robot, The Three Laws are:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These laws provided themes for Asimov's robotic-based fiction, and were devoured by young adults. Intended as a safety feature, The Laws could not be bypassed,. This led to interesting plot twists in many of Asimov's robot-focused stories, as robots react in unusual and counter-intuitive ways as a consequence of how the robot applies the Three Laws to a given situation. Other authors working in Asimov's fictional universe adopted them and over time, we seem to have taken them as a given.

They are not. The utopian futures envisioned to earlier writers have given way to Terminator robots, and Skynet, to say nothing of pilotless drones raining relentless death down on wedding parties. We're a long way from Robby the Robot.


The notion of intelligent automata, a non-human intelligence, dates back to ancient times. More recently, computer technology may trace itself to back to Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine, but "artificial intelligence" can be traced back to 1956 and a conference at Dartmouth where the term was coined. Research in the field ebbed and flowed over decades, and has clearly benefited most recently from in increases in computing power. In 1997, when IBM's Deep Blue defeated Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov, and in 2011, when IBM's Watson won the quiz show "Jeopardy!" by beating reigning champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, a technological Rubicon had been crossed.

It's neither my purpose nor within my ability to trace all of the meaningful developments in AI, but thought it might be useful to consider AI's implications for the future. And yes, I am aware that for much of this discursion I am conflating robotics and AI, but since both rely on vast increases in processing power to be fully realized, keep your rotten vegetables in the bag and bear with me.

“The miraculous has become the norm.” –Jonathan Romney

Sales of manufacturing robots increase each year. According to The International Federation of Robotics, robot sales in 2015 showed a 15% increase over the prior year. The IFR estimates that over 2.5 million industrial robots will be at work in 2019, a growth rate of 12% between 2016 and 2019. Workers have been working side-by-side with robots for decades. My wife's father was a foreman at Ford who worked with robots in the 70s, so robotic work technology is common. But the predicted rate of adoption, coupled with the prospects of driverless fleets, raises the question of what happens to the jobs? And the workers?

No doubt robots increase productivity and competitiveness. This productivity can lead to increased demand and new job opportunities, often in more highly skilled and better-paying jobs. Yet for all this rosy optimism, fear nags. More often, it leads right to profits for the owners and immiseration for the laid off.

Several years ago, author and futurist Ray Kurzweil referred to a point in time known as "the singularity," that point at which machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Based on the exponential growth of technology based on Moore's Law (which states that computing processing power doubles approximately every two years), Kurzweil has predicted the singularity will occur by 2045.

“The pace of progress in artificial intelligence is incredibly fast. Unless you have direct exposure to groups like Deepmind, you have no idea how fast—it is growing at a pace close to exponential. The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year timeframe. 10 years at most.” —Elon Musk

Several thinkers worth listening to, including the late physicist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Elon Musk, warn that the development of AI portends cause for concern.

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," Hawking told the BBC, in response to a question about his new voice recognition system, which uses artificial intelligence to predict intended words. (Hawking had a form of the neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, and communicated using specialized speech software.)

And Hawking isn't alone. Musk told an audience at MIT that AI is humanity's "biggest existential threat." He also once tweeted, "We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes."

Despite these high-profile fears, other researchers argue the rise of conscious machines is a long way off. Says Charlie Ortiz, AI head of a Massachusetts-based software company, "I don't see any reason to think that as machines become more intelligent … which is not going to happen tomorrow — they would want to destroy us or do harm. Lots of work needs to be done before computers are anywhere near that level."

Reassured yet?

“By far, the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people conclude too early that they understand it.”              —Eliezer Yudkowsky

“Someone on TV has only to say, ‘Alexa,’ and she lights up. She’s always ready for action, the perfect woman, never says, ‘Not tonight, dear.’” —Sybil Sage

"Alexa, make me a cocktail, willya?" Not quite yet, but perhaps soon, as companies are incorporating AI into their products. From smartphone assistants to driverless cars, Google is positioning itself be a major player in the future of AI. Amazon and Apple have staked out their own strong positions, as the ubiquity of digital assistants like Siri and Alexa makes them ghostly familiars… with access to your personal information, internet search histories, text messages and porn habits. And with Facebook and hundreds of apps hoovering up our personal information for resale to unseen third parties for purposes available only on a need to know basis, and you don't need to know…

… because YOU are the product.

"Machine learning" is a term of art referring to computer systems that learn from data. Time was computers followed instructions and performed computations for data crunching. Today's devices use a set of machine-learning algorithms, collectively referred to as "deep learning," that allow a computer to recognize patterns from massive amounts of data. This is a deep and profound change, the implications of which we have not yet grasped. And if we have not grasped it, how can we control it or appreciate its repercussions?

Recently AI developed its own non-human language. Researchers at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research training their chatbot “dialog agents” to negotiate, described how the bots made up their own way of communicating.

At one point, the researchers write, they had to tweak one of their models because otherwise the bot-to-bot conversation “led to divergence from human language as the agents developed their own language for negotiating.” They had to use what’s called a fixed supervised model instead.

In other words, the model that allowed two bots to have a conversation—and use machine learning to constantly iterate strategies for that conversation along the way—led to those bots communicating in their own non-human language… the fact that machines will make up their own non-human ways of conversing is an astonishing reminder of just how little we know, even when people are the ones designing these systems.

So Facebook had to pull the plug because in a short period of time, the robots had developed their own language. Not sure about you, but when I envision a future where I attempt a transaction with online chatbots armed not only with a chip full of predictive algorithms, but also in possession of the entire dossier of personal information gleaned from every keystroke I've ever recorded, well, I'm not liking my odds. Here is your "permanent record" made real.

And then the prospect of the Internet of Things (IoT), a galaxy of sensors embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. This is made possible by more ubiquitous broadband internet is become more widely available, less expensive connection costs, and more devices created with Wi-Fi capabilities and sensors built in.  I already know my phone and TV listen to me; will they next connive against me in concert with the refrigerator and the coffee maker? Encourage the air conditioner to go on strike?

All roads in AI seem to lead to dystopia. Our inability to imagine a more positive future for artificial intelligence may stem from the fact that we've lost faith in ourselves. We're seen the tech companies in action, and they are opaque. And they sell the data mined with impunity to unseen actors. Our morality is defined not by the Church or in civic pride, but by the spreadsheet; our worth found in the lower right-hand corner. Knowing we are cooking the planet, we insist on burning the last few gallons of liquid sunlight left ion the ground to wring the last few dollars of profit. We willingly sacrifice children to the profits of the Slaughter Lobby. We elect louts to lead us, accept sabotage as political business-as-usual, embrace treason as a cost of doing business. Under the circumstances, who would dare possibly envision a happier future?

Who could imagine Asimov's Three Laws emerging from any part of today's debased culture?


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, screeds and spittle-flecked invective here and elsewhere, and was active in Occupy. He lives in Southeastern Virginia with his wife Contrary in quiet and richly-deserved obscurity. He will have failed if not prominently featured on an enemies list compiled by the current administration.

Airlines Stricken by Technology Cancer

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on August 13, 2016

Plane-Crash

Discuss this article at the Science & Technology Table inside the Diner

It was by all accounts a small problem, a little overheating last Monday in the electronic jungle that is the Technology Command Center for Delta Airlines at its Atlanta headquarters. This minor overheating event — okay, “fire” if you insist — caused a nearby voltage-control module to spasm and allow a surge to hit a transformer, which immediately shut down the power supply. No worries, there’s an app for that. It’s called a switchgear, and its job is to sense a power failure and immediately switch the circuit to a backup power source.

The switchgear didn’t work.

Instantly, much of the computer network with which the world’s largest airline tracks and controls its  planes, employees, and ticketed passengers worldwide, crashed. Airplanes on the ground were stopped in place. Aircraft in the air landed at their destination, and parked. A thousand flights had to be cancelled, tens of thousands of passengers were stranded in parked airplanes and airports. Another 500 flights were cancelled on Tuesday, and the airline continued five days later to struggle toward normalcy.

This is hardly an unprecedented event:

  • In July, Southwest Airlines lost its network for 12 hours and had to cancel 2,300 flights over four days. The failure of a single router brought the system down, and it took 12 hours to reboot it.
  • In September of 2015, an American Airlines system glitch stopped its flights to and from its hubs at Chicago, Dallas and Miami.
  • In April of 2013, a national computer outage at American Airlines wiped out a third of its scheduled flights.
  • August, 2012 – United Airlines experienced a two-hour crash of its computer systems that affected 10 per cent of its flights.

Note that the frequency of these events has gone from fewer than one a year (remember that each event costs the airline tens of millions of dollars and the passengers — well, who knows what it costs the passengers?) to two so far this year. Does anybody know why? Of course. Everybody involved knows why:

  • Each airline’s system was built in the 1990s. One of the basic assumptions was that it could be shut down at night for repairs and maintenance. Now the systems are global and it’s always daytime somewhere. The system is like an airplane that can’t land, and has to be fixed and maintained in flight.
  • Since then, the numbers of passengers and aircraft have grown exponentially. Patches and add-ons have been required so that the software can contain, search, sort and otherwise manipulate ever larger masses of data.
  • There have been numerous mergers, requiring that individual, proprietary systems be modified so that they communicate and work with each other.
  • Outside systems and networks — Internet travel agents and ticket sellers, for example, have demanded access to the airlines’ systems. Adding them to an oversized network while maintaining security has not been easy.

After 20 years of slapdash growth, Frankenstein grafts, temporary fixes, plug-ins, add-ons and extension cords, each airline has a system that is too big to fix, and increasingly prone to fail. You can’t fix it because it has to keep going, and it can’t keep going unless you fix it. You can’t afford to fix it, and you can’t afford not to.

This is Stage Four Technology Cancer, and it’s not affecting just the computer reservation and scheduling systems. A recent survey of maintenance personnel for the South American Airline LATAM revealed increasing worry about the effects of cuts in the numbers and qualifications of maintenance personnel, to save money. Giving credence to those worries, another study shows that since 2010, fewer than two commercial airliners per year have crashed worldwide. That was a worse record than that of the previous several years. So far in 2016, three airliners have crashed. The numbers are small so far, but the trend is in the wrong direction.   

This is what technology cancer does; it grows without restraint until it threatens the survival of its host. If its host is the sort who refuses to have surgery because it’s too inconvenient, death ensues.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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