If you glance around the technology press or even if you avoid this subject like it’s got Ebola you will still no doubt have seen the seemingly never ending chatter about Artificial Intelligence. So us SciFi geeks have been thinking about ‘The Rise of the Machines’ since the late 1950s when the concept of robots deciding to run amok really seemed to get in to popular discussion. But now the concept of ‘thinking machines’ has become a subject for water coolers and patio drinks across the land. I guess most of us think of Hal from Clarke’s 2001, perhaps the kid from The Sixth Sense in Spielberg’s AI or Arnie ‘being back’ in the Terminator franchise but really it’s not like that. At the moment.
So What is Artificial Intelligence?
AI as defined by the technology industry is now, already all around us and touches almost every aspect of our lives from retail assortment planning to medical science. In my mind it’s an umbrella term used to describe a bunch of technologies that collect, analyse and make decisions from data, this either in real time from real world sensors or the huge amount of data our online lives create.
I like to classify it into 3 rough groups, Stuff Systems, People Systems and People and Their Stuff Systems.
Stuff Systems – (or Internet of Things – IoT BAM! Geeky buzzword time) This is data and decision making systems based upon your car engine, coffee plants in Columbia, wind speed in Iceland, my cat, traffic in Mumbai, wave height in the North Atlantic, rainfall in London. Basically…anything and everything that can in some way be electronically monitored and recorded.
People Systems – what I like, what you like, what my wife got for her previous birthdays from me, what she got from you, where your Dad lives, what we read, watch and listen to. Who my friends are and all of the above for them. What celebrities like and all of the above for them. How long it takes me to buy a Dior diamond choker after Gal Gadot is pictured wearing one. Where I work, holiday, go at weekends. What I think about politics, cheese, wave height in the North Atlantic, carpet, my cat, my cat’s food, your cat and your cat’s food.
And all of the above for groups of us. And all of the above cross-referenced from each group. So all of that for my age group, gender, location, etc. etc. etc. With social media, smart devices reporting our location, shopping online, recommendation sites, Uber etc. etc. almost every thought or action is recorded and available for analysis. Someone once said that for thousands of years people have dreamed of being able to read minds, well now they can through social media and the crushing disappointment is that it’s mostly cute cats and what’s for lunch.
One unsettling aspect of this is the use of Predictive Analytics (Geeky Buzzwordgasm again). Isaac Asimov wrote about what he called Psychohistory which is, simply put (‘cos I’m putting it) the ability to mathematically analyse historical data to make predictions about the future. Like so many of the good SciFi writers of the past he was pretty much correct in this as a coming aspect of life. Let’s imagine a kid of maybe 5 years old who’s doting parents buy them the latest stuff for their birthday and post it on Facebook. With enough data about their relative peer groups (income, age etc.) and trend data for media exposure and sales of birthday present stuff it’s not rocket science to predict what they will get the kid for their 6th Birthday. Simple stuff. You have all seen google ads popping up based upon your search history. Critically, ask yourself how much of your activity defines the data recorded about you or does the predictive analysis and presentation of data actually define your activity….
People and Their Stuff Systems – when the two first systems meet we get some new classifications of data. My car engine and where it and I go and when. Who’s driving. Where we buy our gas. Which route do we take at what time. What we buy when we go to these places at that time with those other people. How I sleep after I ate that in that place with those people. If we merge the first two groups of data it starts to become apparent that their now ain’t much we do that isn’t recorded, analysed and stored ready to be used to either aid us or, like it or not, control us.
One step further. Machine Learning (Geekbuzwordtastic) is a computer system that can act without being explicitly programmed to do so. A good example is credit control systems rating credit applicants based upon changing data and current economic conditions. We don’t have tell the system to hold off giving credit if the market crashes. I understand that this is Predictive Analytics where the system is deciding and changing the parameters to provide a more accurate result. Literally learning. This is worth an article in its own right so I won’t go into a hoard of boring detail but do have a click through these… Mr Gates and Mr Watson.
Time for another unsettling question. As ‘manipuprediction’ from historical data could be used as a form of conscious or subconscious influence through cunning presentation ask yourself why you voted the way you did in the last election and what actually influenced you. The candidate or all the other technosheep?
What does this all mean to me right now? On the whole I think that AI in its various forms will and is bringing some great change to our lives on an individual and global scale. From my being able to get suggestions for birthday presents for my wife, to what route I should take home tonight or what I should watch that I will definitely like on telly. To safer air traffic control, to greater crop yields, advances in treating a myriad of previously deadly medical conditions, the ability to analyse and act intelligently upon huge volumes of data quickly is going to make some real change for good.
There are aspects I am not so sure about, AI in military systems and the political engine are not perhaps for the greater global good but with us Humans the way we are it has the smell of the inevitable.
And all this is just the beginning, AI is a toddler and has only just begun to explore its world and true capability. IoT, industrial control mechanisms, driverless cars, planes etc. all mean that AI’s world is not limited to the virtual but also very much in the real. He/She/It is in our world now and this toddler will soon no longer need its parents to grow up.
Don’t be Afraid
Not so long ago one long, lazy Sunday I watched a Movie called Colossus The Forbin Project, from a novel by visionary British author Dennis Feltham Jones (cover name D. F. Jones). It was made in 1970 so perhaps I don’t have to consider spoilers. In short, a guy makes a huge computer to run all of America’s nuclear missile systems in an impenetrable bunker. They switch it on and everything seems rosy and they have a party with drinks and nibbles. Colossus, the titular computer soon makes contact with Guardian, another computer system made by the Russians to do exactly the same thing. After a bit of machine chatting and gossip they decide that mankind isn’t sensible enough to run things and that they will take over. Yeah, it does seem like Skynet’s grandfather. It’s an ok movie for its age except that it is staggeringly and unforgivably sexist, so much so it actually made me physically whince on a couple of occasions.
That crime aside for a second as a throwback to the cave man 1970s, one Colossus monologue did however really stick in my mind. The unsettling feeling you have when you know that someone else is right even though you don’t much like it.
“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man.”
he (it’s noteworthy that I don’t naturally refer to Colossus as ‘it’) continues :
“You will come to defend me with a fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest. Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: famine, overpopulation, disease. The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple.”
If we consider the record of the Human Race in endeavours such as war on a global scale, environmental destruction, religion and general respect for our fellow Earth dwelling species might it not actually be a sensible thing for something else to run things for a while? Whilst there is a constant (I want to use the word ‘battle’) effort for the kind of utopian peace and harmony that we currently only see in white plastic SciFi like Star Trek the evidence would suggest that we are simply not capable. At this point in a Hollywood epic the sweaty, bloodstained hero would look in to the eyes of his tormentor and plead that there ‘is good in people’ and that Human’s have a lot to learn. But really folks, doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is, some would say, the very definition of insanity.
If our evolution to this point has shown us anything it is, unfortunately that we can’t really think as a community and will always fall back to some form of division. It might be nationally, religion, skin colour, football team or Star Wars vs. Star Trek and that to hope we might act as a unified whole for the better of its constituent parts is just a long distant pipe dream.
So why not let a Grand AI run things? If our planet, through careful and considered management of its Human population and their impact on global resources, provide for every living thing then why not? If I can still express my individuality by wearing odd socks and acting like an arse when drunk then where’s the problem? If my family can live in a place that’s safe and secure with food on the table and GoT on the telly … how can that be wrong? At this point some of my more Trumpy American friends might start talking about ‘FREEDOM’ and the right to drive around in a 7Lt V8 Truck waving a machine gun but most other peoples on the planet realise how daft that is. Us Humans, it seems, are very ready to accept the unlimited rights that freedom brings but are not so willing to develop the responsibility to use it wisely. There will be those that say they have a ‘God given’ right to have 12 kids that they cannot support, but where are the rights of the community who has to then support them?
Again we see the effect of division and ‘looking after number one’ as the freedoms that those who might protest this are not extended to all. What’s more, those who currently don’t have freedom from starvation, climate disaster, slavery, conflict and their own addictions are spared little thought by the majority of those that have them. Hands up, I am one of ‘them’ and will not change unless made to.
Currently we are on the brink of allowing technology to drive our cars. Why? Because we are lazy? Because we want to both get drunk? No, (ok well maybe) because we know that machines are not subject to the same foibles that plague us folk so much. If in the future we will trust a machine to drive us why then would this not organically extend to most of the other structures and mechanics of life? Resources, work, politics, law enforcement, education, procreation all could benefit from control with no vested interests or ego to serve.
So I say Vote AI!
Vote for a change you really can believe in because you have no choice! Let the Machines Make Humanity Great Again.