Tag Archives: the internet

Smart Machines, or, Skynet Part 3

It’s time to continue my series of informative posts about the imminent extinction of humanity.

It’s genocide people, and it’s not going to be caused by climate change, or a nuclear holocaust (though a nuclear war could be a flow-on effect).  No, it’s going to be caused by machines; machines that we have built, nursed, and educated, that will at last turn on us, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, and destroy us.

I know that most of you probably think that human-killing robots (aka terminators) are the stuff of science fiction.  They’re about as realistic as Arnie’s cameo in Terminator: Salvation, right?  I mean, we’ve got far more pressing issues to worry about: economic meltdown, rising sea levels, terrorists obtaining dirty WMDs, Pakistan vs India, North Korea, even Iran.  Isn’t that right?  Wrong.

the-terminator

Let’s me draw your attention to an excellent article that recently appeared in the NY Times:

A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge itself.  Computer viruses that no one can stop.  Predator drones, which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to a machine that can kill autonomously.

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

As examples, the scientists pointed to a number of technologies as diverse as experimental medical systems that interact with patients to simulate empathy, and computer worms and viruses that defy extermination and could thus be said to have reached a “cockroach” stage of machine intelligence.

The researchers generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

A number of things can be gleaned from this article:

  1. science has made rapid advancements that most of us are not aware of
  2. scientists, the very people who have made these advancements, are concerned enough to consider limiting themselves (and hence, doing themselves out of a job).
  3. mechanical intelligence may already have passed the point of no return.

These insidious developments in robotics are taking place right under our very noses – in publicly and privately owned laboratories around the world.  We jabber on endlessly about health care, financial regulation, and even the environment, when none of these things will exist after the machines are finished with us.

How can this approaching tsunami be stopped?  Put simply, it can’t.

The development of AI is a business, and businesses are notoriously uninterested in fundamental safeguards — especially philosophic ones.  A few quick examples: the tobacco industry, the automotive industry, the nuclear industry. Not one of these has said from the outset that fundamental safeguards are necessary, every one of them has resisted externally imposed safeguards, and none has accepted an absolute edict against ever causing harm to humans.

That’s a quote from Robert Sayer, SF Author (and prophet), which can be traced back to that eminently reliable website Wikipedia.

But it’s a good point that Sayer makes.  Research into artificial intelligence is as natural to capitalism (late capitalism to be precise) as breathing oxygen is to us human beings.  The catastrophe that Marx foresaw (but was unable to name), the contradiction that he argued would destroy capital from within, will not be a global financial collapse, but the literal destruction of our society by our technological servants.  It will be thus be same cultural logic that gave rise to steam engines, motor cars, computers, and nuclear weapons, that is, instrumental rationality, which will come into its own and, having liberated ghost from shell, will at last annihilate we who gave birth to it.  It will be the Industrial Revolution Part 2.

I_Robot_-_Runaround

But what of Issac Asimov, I hear you cry, and his 3 Laws of Robotics:

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

Such constraints are well and good in theory, but only if you believe that robots will remain restricted to what is programmable, which I think is naive.  What if the scientists and the IT nerds are wrong: that’s what I want to know.  What if we are on the cusp of a highly centralized superintelligence?  Has anyone prepared for such an event?  Has the  US Army been stockpiling EMP grenades?

I think it will be important to remember, when the Singularity does arrives, that Vernor Vinge got there first:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any any man however clever.  Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.

I urge you to read his treatise on The Coming Technological Singularity in full. It’s frightening food for thought.  And he wrote it back in 93!

I hardly need point out the prescience of The Matrix. And, if you’ve ever wondered how Neo’s world got to so messed up, you ought to consider the far better accompanying series The Animatrix, which eschews feel-good messages and goes right for the viewer’s jugular, depicting humanity’s demise with cold candour.  The machines of course have a different name for humanity’s downfall: they call it the Second Renaissance.

If you haven’t seen the below documentary, it’s compulsory viewing.  It ain’t science fiction; it’s a documentary sent back from the future, to warn us.  (If you’re listening to this, you are the resistance.)

I won’t stop banging on about this.  Not until the world wakes up….WAKE UP!

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Data Centres, or, Skynet Part 2

Googlepex

Googlepex

Not so long ago I posted about a cybernetic hand already in the late stages of development.

I tried, in that post, to draw the reader’s attention to a strikingly similar hand featured in the Terminator series.

Now another insidious development has come to my attention: data centres.

A friend asked me recently, “How does the internet work?”  It’s a good question; and I had no idea how to answer it.

The truth is, none of us really know: we simply switch on, plug in, and enjoy.  We don’t care how the data stream works, so long as it works.  Like ancients worshipping at a pagan altar, we don’t question: we assume our deity will deliver what we need, be it rain, food, or a constant stream of gigabytes.

The only time we are reminded that machines actually exist, that there are mechanical parts involved in all this, is when something breaks down.  How many of us, for example, have any idea how to fix a car.  Or more pertinently repair a motherboard?  We call the RACV or an IT specialist and take refuge in modernity’s specialisation of labour.  And, if something really is unfixable, we simply throw it away and buy another one (see my recent post on W.A.S.T.E)

But, while we busily forget, our machines grow smarter: as Donnay Harraway says, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.”  And technology, like waste, is becoming increasingly invisible; at least, in terms of functionality

The latest phenomenon (and the future of the internet according to the pundits) is cloud computing.  The cloud (a very apt term) describes the amorphous, unidentifiable, unlocatable aether where all of our information is stored.  You can already sign up with Apple or Microsoft or Google or Amazon or any number of IT giants seeking to muscle in and gain dominance over this lucrative market.   Rather than storing all your data on a physical harddrive, you simply access it from the cloud, or should I say, their cloud.

A Mind Map of the Cloud's Collective Unconscious

A Mind Map of the Cloud

The design of modern computers reflectes this desire to remove or miniaturise functionality.  Think about the shape of an iMac (which most manufacters are now copying) and how it presents itself.  A computer is now essentially a screen; other than keyboard and mouse, those things absolutely necessary for human interface, there is no attendant case or hardware.   Our computers have become, like the internet, all surface.  Like Narcissus, we stare into the water (the screen, the mirror, the pool, the portal) and dream of immersion.

Our relationship to technology has thus become increasinly magical.  Technology hasn’t liberated our rationality; it has liberated us from rationality.  The internet is a form of secular magic.

Which brings me back to data centres.

The reality is that behind the cloud, with its magic, are machines.  Millions upon millions of them.  All sitting in rows, in giant warehouses, or vaults underground,  kept cool by giant wind tunnels which funnel through icy gusts, and powered by enormous 2.5 megawatt generators.  No fluffy white imagery here – just cold, hard machines.

Which is why I get worried when I read something like this:

“It’s like Fight Club,” says Rich Miller, whose Web site, Data Center Knowledge, tracks the industry. “The first rule of data centers is: Don’t talk about data centers.”

And this:

When it comes to a large company like Microsoft, it can be difficult to find out what any given data center is used for. The company, for reasons ranging from security to competitive advantage, won’t provide much in the way of details.

And this:

Data centers worldwide now consume more energy annually than Sweden. And the amount of energy required is growing…From 2000 to 2005, the aggregate electricity use by data centers doubled. The cloud…consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world’s electricity.

If you want to really get the lowdown read the full article by Tom Vanderbilt at the NY Times.

I merely point this out because, as a fervent proponent of crackpot conspiracy theories, I think we have be extremely wary of how closely reality is starting to resembling ‘science fiction’.

Anyone seen the the San Francisco HQ of SKYNET in Terminator: Salvation?  It’s a giant data centre!  The kind run by Google!  The kind which can process a search query in .015 of a second!  The kind that, suddenly, unexpectedly, can attain sentience and turns on its maker with savage fury!

I don’t want to be a panic merchant…but, seriously, RUN FOR THE HILLS!!!!!

It’s also worth having a look at this article by John Markoff & Saul Hansell on Google’s empire of data centres.

“Google has constructed the biggest computer in the world, and it’s a hidden asset,” said Danny Hillis, a supercomputing pioneer and a founder of Applied Minds, a technology consulting firm, referring to the Googleplex.

The biggest computer in the word?  Anyone else afraid?  Or is it just my paranoia?

Is anyone even listenining?  Is anybody out there (out there… out there…)?

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