Technology

Is It Time to Welcome Our New Robot Overlords?

From online shopping to drone surveillance, it's a brave new world out there.

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If you're the least bit computer-literate, you've probably had the unnerving experience of searching for a product online—garden gnomes, for instance—only to find that once you've searched, seemingly half the advertisements you see on the web are pitching garden gnomes.

To those who grew up before the Internet, this looks like magic. To people growing up today, it looks like child's play. And in terms of artificial intelligence (AI), it is. For instance, retailers sometimes know a customer is pregnant before she has shared the happy news with friends.

A woman who starts buying prenatal vitamins or shopping for maternity clothes, for instance, might find herself receiving mailers promoting cribs and baby clothes.

As The New York Times reported a couple of years ago, retailers such as Target hoover up vast libraries of information about customers—from basic demographic data to details about brand preferences and charitable-giving histories (some of which are bought from third parties). Predictive analytics then help aim marketing efforts at the customers they will most likely persuade. Guy buys a riding lawnmower? Maybe he'd be interested in some topsoil and work gloves, too.

Technology can predict other things as well—such as card sharks and terrorist threats. Vegas casinos pioneered the use of non-obvious relationship awareness (NORA) and it proved so effective that the Department of Homeland Security embraced it after 9/11. NORA allows a casino—or the federal government—to mine data and discover, say, that four people who traveled to Vegas on different flights and took separate rooms at the same hotel all share an apartment back in Chicago. Hmmmm.

Since last year's marathon bombing, Boston has deployed a surveillance system of closed-circuit TV cameras throughout the city. The cameras feed data into a network that looks for anomalies. Wesley Cobb, the chief science officer for Behavioral Recognition Systems, says the network has "taught itself what to look for."

Surveillance can be unsettling, but it has little effect without human intervention. A security camera can notice a shoplifter, but it can't detain him. But what happens when human intervention becomes unnecessary, irrelevant or even problematic? That's the premise behind countless sci-fi flicks, from Terminator (1984) to Transcendence (now playing at a theater near you).

Script-writers aren't the only ones who noodle over such questions. Fear of runaway artificial intelligence motivated Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Bill Joy, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, used Kaczynski's manifesto as the starting point for a famous article in Wired on "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us."

In brief, Kaczynski warned of a future in which "computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them." In that event, humanity either would cede control of daily life to autonomous machines, or humanity would cede control to a tiny technological elite in control of the machines. We can't know what autonomous machines would do, and even if a few people ran them, the elite would still control everyone else.

If that does not sound quite grim enough, consider the view of AI theorist Steven Omohundro. In a recent paper for the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, he says we can indeed know what autonomous machines would do—and it isn't pretty.

Advanced systems are, he says, essentially obsessive. They do only one or two things and they "want" to do them as well as possible—and they are uninhibited by other considerations, such as ethics. (To take a simple example, Microsoft Word doesn't care one bit if you're writing a love letter or a death threat.) Sufficiently intelligent machines might decide their own priorities take precedence over ours.

"When roboticists are asked by nervous onlookers about safety," Omohundro argues, "a common answer is 'We can always unplug it!' But imagine this outcome from the chess robot's point of view. A future in which it is unplugged is a future in which it cannot play or win any games of chess. This has very low utility and so expected utility maximization will cause the creation of the instrumental subgoal of preventing itself from being unplugged." Hello, Skynet.

Omohundro warns that unless carefully designed, intelligent machine systems will exhibit several antisocial traits: They will strive to protect themselves. They will seek ever-greater resources to achieve their aims. They will seek to maximize the scale on which they execute their core mission, including (potentially) self-replication. And they will interact with the world based on the stimuli that improve or impede their ability to do so.

This does indeed sound disturbing. But it does not sound all that new. Plants and animals do the same things. More to the point, humans already have created intelligent systems that do all those things as well: private corporations, political movements, religions, and—perhaps most of all—governments.

Our new robot overlords, should they ever arrive, might not prove any more benevolent. But given humanity's grim history, they probably won't turn out any worse.

NEXT: Guilty by Association: An Internet Political Game That's Fun for Everybody!

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  1. Same old story.

    I don’t really have a problem with businesses knowing my shit. They use that to tailor their shit to what I like. Meaning I get better shit.

    Government, OTOH, has only bad intentions…and guns.

    This isn’t hard. We’ve limited the government before. You can’t tap phones without a warrant. You can’t open someone’s mail without a warrant. You can’t get someone’s library card without a warrant… We did this to limit the ways government can fuck with its citizens. It has NOTHING to do with access or who else knows about the info or the medium it is transmitted on. It’s absurd that the government claims it can listen in on my cell phone, read my email or look at what I read on the interwebz… simply because the same exact shit is transmitted differently. It’s the same shit, only faster. You want to look at my info? Get a fucking warrant.

    As far as the robots go… same shit, different day. The pigs will get away with what we allow them to get away with.

    1. Agreed, Robot uprisings have been the fear of robotics since Karel Capek invented the notion in the 20s. Before the robots, the fear was of mutant lizard uprisings.

      More relevantly, the definition of computers and algorithms has been contentious since it’s inception. When we reach a point where a human can be effectively simulated by autonomous computing algorithms, have we ended humanity or massively expanded it?

      The robots don’t scare me as much as the massive expansion of the flaws that humanity carries with it. There will still be conservative robots and conservative algorithms to oppose the liberal robots with liberal algorithms and wars to be waged over ideology.

      1. EDIT: “invented the notion of robots in the 20s”

    2. The problem is that business and government are so intertwined that they will hand over records about your transactions rather than risk the displeasure of the government.

  2. I’m with d’Anc, above. You want to look at my house? Get a warrant. It says I have a right to be secure in my person, houses, papers and effects. It says my stuff can’t be violated without warrants particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
    That’s rather simple stuff, and it doesn’t say it can be overcome by the police crying “I don’ wanna!”

  3. Sadly, we live in a country where political leaders can think, “Maybe if I try this one thing that is a naked violation of the Constitution no one will notice or care,” and then basically get away with it without incident. This happens enough times that others start to notice and jump on the bandwagon. No one pays a penalty for violating the Constitution other than the low-probability chance that the law they passed my be overturned in the courts.

    I propose a bill that states that politicians that enact legislation that is unconstitutional are held criminally liable such that any citizen can challenge the constitutionality of any law and file suit against the laws creator.

    1. Hit em where it hurts.

      Constitutional amendment. Anyone voting for a law that is subsequently found unconstitutional will be immediately removed from public office and may never hold office OR work for the government again.

      See if that slows the growth of government?

      1. Great idea. I sincerely do like it.

        Good luck getting any politician to vote for it though.

      2. The courts will then cease to declare any law Unconstitutional (not that they do much of that now). The Political Class protects its own.

        1. A constitutional amendment requiring the SCOTUS to perform a judicial review on ALL laws passed by congress.

          And then, appoint a Super SCOTUS to review all SCOTUS decisions. Any Supreme Court Justice voting to declare a law constitutional that’s subsequently found unconstitutional by the Super SCOTUS, will be immediately put to death.

          Meh…give it some teeth.

          1. That’s way too difficult.

            Just make me Supreme Overlord today, and tomorrow I will repeal about 99% of laws.

            Problem solved.

            1. You stole my next iteration. I was going to appoint myself as the sole member of the Super Super SCOTUS.

              1. As Supreme Overlord, I will appoint you sole member of Super Super SCOTUS.

                Next, I will command the Pentagon to focus all of their efforts on containing Warty.

          2. A constitutional amendment requiring the SCOTUS to perform a judicial review on ALL laws passed by congress.

            I like it. Also, any law that isn’t reviewed within 3 months of passage is automatically repealed.

            1. Good, but more.

              Also, any law that isn’t reviewed within 3 months of passage is automatically repealed and all sitting members of the SCOTUS are summarily executed.

              1. Tough, but fair.

        2. I was thinking this too. At the very least it might help to gum up the system. Also, I think it would make constitutional violations more transparent to the public, even if the courts decided the other way. Maybe that would lead to more political backlash.

    2. Personally, I miss the old days where you could formally challenge someone up to and including political leaders to a duel.

      Enact laws that you’re literally willing to die for or enact no laws at all.

      1. Also, anyone votes on using military force, goes to the front lines.

        1. Right behind their wife and kids.

    3. All this is humorous, but there is an underlying thread of truth here.

      The possibility of getting voted out of office isn’t enough of a threat to stop politicians from attempting to take the rights of the minority. There needs to be a more severe mechanism of enforcement.

      1. I’m not joking. I have to be nostalgic, earnestness in this assertion gets you labelled as nuts or worse.

    4. I have what i think s a better idea; ant legislator who champions a law that is found unconstitutional is given a 5 min. Head start….

  4. Maybe they can replace cops.

    I haven’t had much time to post last few days. Has anyone noticed that there has been 2 cop firings in the news recently? Hopefully a postitive trend away from ‘and nothing else happened’.

    1. The will of the people DOES have an effect on government. Thing is…people gotta have the will.

      1. I find the general public’s will for anything to be non-existent.

  5. So, now the GOP has stooped so low as to invent fake gay guy running for office, and even claim that the guy’s sexuality is being attacked from the left! Ha! Everyone knows that can’t really happen.

    GOP invent gay Republican and make up story that the left are attacking him in a racist manner

    1. He’s a unicorn?

    2. he said he doesn’t want to emphasize his sexual orientation or his challenging childhood ? he prefers to talk about the fiscal condition of the country and his candidacy

      A campaign about issues? Issues that actually affect the people and not culture war bullshit? That’s not real.

    3. This line stood out for me.

      “I’ve found more tolerance, acceptance and inclusion from social conservative groups who have to reconcile that I’m a Republican who happens to be gay…versus the intolerance the LGBT leaders see me as a gay man who happens to be a Republican,” DeMaio said.

      1. If you can’t stay focused on promoting victimhood, then you don’t have a place on the left.

      2. Well that’s obvious. You can’t help being Gay, you are just born that way. But a Republican chooses to be evil.

        /derp

  6. A woman who starts buying prenatal vitamins or shopping for maternity clothes, for instance, might find herself receiving mailers promoting cribs and baby clothes.

    My wife made the mistake of buying some maternity clothes for a pregnant friend’s baby shower. Now she’s on the list, apparently. Trial editions of Baby magazine keep showing up in the mailbox, free samples of some disgusting looking formula, invitations to parenting classes, diaper samples. The advertising robots need to get a whole lot smarter.

    1. Yeah, even when accurate, the algorithms are unbelievably stupid too.

      The wife and I have two kids 18 mo. apart with a third 4.5 yrs. later. The first two got us formula and diaper coupons and baby ads for years. Well after they were out of diapers and off formula. I don’t think I’ve seen a single ad/coupon since before the 3rd was born.

      1. “mad.casual… three kids… baby formula… diapers… Got it!”

        Expect to be receiving millions of coupons coupons in the mail now.

      2. “The first two got us formula and diaper coupons and baby ads for years.”

        The Left has been pushing back against Formula hard for the last few years. Three years ago we had twins. We were inundated with free formula cans at the hospital (at least a couple from each major brand) and plenty of coupons afterwards. When my wife was at the hospital 8 months ago for our next set of twins (yes we have two pairs) the nurses told us that the new hospital policy banned the giving of free formula and even for signing up pregnant mothers for companies that sold formula. Apparently baby formula is the new EVIL.

  7. Today on Derpbook, a prog responds to Keynes’ proposal for the govt to bury money bottles in abandoned coal mines.

    So I am supposed to discuss the idea of burying bottles of money under garbage and putting people to work digging them up? Was this a serious idea, or just intentional hyberbole. The idea that the unemployment problem can be solved simply by employing people to do whatever menial busy work and whatever wage is kind of silly. It’s not just that people need jobs, people need good paying jobs that will actually allow them to be independent and be able to eat, pay bills, and rent. Simply removing the minimum wage, or manufacturing low level jobs for people to work isn’t solving the problem. Unemployment could be at zero, and it wouldn’t make a luck of difference is the same amount of people still qualified for food stamps and welfare. Removing food stamps and welfare, would just mean that people starve, or turn to crime and violence to provide for their families.

  8. Cont’d

    The problem today is that no one is invested in America anymore. During WW2 it was a prosperous time, because everyone worked for the war effort (arguably the last legitimate war the US was ever in) building things, recycling scrap, buying war bonds, whatever it took. Every one was invested, everyone took part, everyone reaped the rewards. Nowadays all of that stuff is outsourced to no bid politically connected multi-national corporations that could give two shits about America, or Americans. Of the trillions pissed away on Afghanistan and Iraq, barely any of that money is ever coming back to the US. The US used to be a community, where everyone tried to help each other prosper…until Reagan changed all that. Now it’s every man for himself, fuck the greater good, and make as much profit as possible at whoever’s expense.

    WW2 was a prosperous time? I reminded him about all the rationing.

    Everyone took part and reaped benefits? I reminded him of the Japanese internment camps.

    Yes, truly the US was a good and happy place until the dark lord Reagan seized power.

    1. No worries, though. Once Hillary is commander in chief, we’ll have us another good ol world war and things will be prosperous again.

    2. During WW2 it was a prosperous time, because everyone worked for the war effort

      With this post, I’m proud to report that I’ve crossed the threshold from despair over humanity’s tiny, tiny brains to feelings of smug superiority.

      WW2 was so prosperous that American automobile manufacturers stopped producing civilian vehicles for years while teenaged boys were slaughtered by the score every day. Nothing spells wealth like watching the wheels of capital innovation grind to a halt while millions of slaves kill one another with explosives on the orders of the political elites.

    3. A lot of the rationing was propaganda.

      1. Umm, there were no civilian cars produced for years and gasoline, sugar, flour, meat, butter etc were strictly rationed. How was that propaganda?

        http://www.ameshistory.org/exh….._items.htm

  9. Cont’d

    The problem today is that no one is invested in America anymore. During WW2 it was a prosperous time, because everyone worked for the war effort (arguably the last legitimate war the US was ever in) building things, recycling scrap, buying war bonds, whatever it took. Every one was invested, everyone took part, everyone reaped the rewards. Nowadays all of that stuff is outsourced to no bid politically connected multi-national corporations that could give two shits about America, or Americans. Of the trillions pissed away on Afghanistan and Iraq, barely any of that money is ever coming back to the US. The US used to be a community, where everyone tried to help each other prosper…until Reagan changed all that. Now it’s every man for himself, fuck the greater good, and make as much profit as possible at whoever’s expense.

    WW2 was a prosperous time? I reminded him about all the rationing.

    Everyone took part and reaped benefits? I reminded him of the Japanese internment camps.

    Yes, truly the US was a good and happy place until the dark lord Reagan seized power.

    1. So a progressive comes full circle. The Dead Kennedys were making fun of exactly that perspective 30 years ago.

    2. Removing food stamps and welfare, would just mean that people starve, or turn to crime and violence to provide for their families.

      So…in the absence of welfare (and the govt. that supplies it), poor people are too stupid, lazy, and malicious, to provide for themselves?

      Good to know.

      During WW2 it was a prosperous time, because everyone worked for the war effort…

      Perpetual warfare(revolution) is the key to unity and prosperity?

      Leon Trotsky called. He’d like his ideas back.

      Reagan changed all that.

      Yeah, remember all of that peace and prosperity Carter left in his wake? It’s not like JFK and LBJ sent thousands of young men off to die in Indochina to clean up the French’s mistake there.

      As soon as Ronaldus Magnus was seated on the throne, the Golden City turned Black and the darkspawn hordes were unleashed on the world.

    3. Reagan was alive back then. I’m sure he had a hand in Japanese internment. No way that Saint Roosevelt could be responsible.

      1. Much like segregation in the South, it’s obvious that Republicans were secretly behind it.

  10. Which am I supposed to be more afraid of – the technology that currently exists within all government levels, to track my every movement and turn me into a mound of hamburger at the press of button, or the self-aware mechanized overlords of some theoretical future? It’s the same dichotomy between am I supposed to be afraid of our current monetary, fiscal, and economic policies or some ecologically devastated future of sandy wastelands with bands of roving cannibals? I am much more concerned about today and tomorrow (and my unintentional mishaps yesterday yet to be discovered by the Apparatus). Unless there is some specific behavior I am supposed to engage in today, what good does the speculation do (other than generate clicks and comments)? Anyway, terminators or cannibals, it’s likely my kids’ problem(s) to deal with. Sorry about that….

  11. I don’t like targeted ads, and get off my lawn!

    I’m old, but if in my lifetime we DO have robots that decide I’m not worth keeping around, I’m not going down without a fight. Si ? meet Pb.

  12. Uhg. Robots will not be created to do harmful things unless we program them to. And here’s where it matters. We all own computers and we have no belief that our computers will go off on their own to do harm. But it actually does happen. Computers can be taken over by someone else’s computer and be told to do things like spam email to thousands of people. Likewise, robots will never be inherently programmed to do bad and harmful things. But someone will create a worm or whatever and figure out a way to obtain access. But as technology improves, so will the security systems. This will limit the number of incidences to very low / personal level of potential attack – not a huge army of robots rising up to slaughter all of their owners. That doesn’t mean that someone won’t build an army of robots to slaughter some other military threat – it’s just that it will programmed to do that. It won’t come as a surprise and robots won’t attain enlightenment or self awareness. They will simply act on the basis of their programming – and the programmers will not program them for destruction of the masses… unless they do.

  13. To those who grew up before the Internet, this looks like magic. To people growing up today, it looks like child’s play.

    As someone straddling the divide between pre- and post-Internet Age, I just find it annoying and stupid. If I just bought something, WHY would I need to buy it again two hours later?

  14. “When roboticists are asked by nervous onlookers about safety,” Omohundro argues, “a common answer is ‘We can always unplug it!'”

    That’s the biggest straw man I’ve ever read.

    You think people working in a manufacturing plant run by robots just plan to unplug it if something goes wrong?

    As if no one studies Safety Critical Systems.

    Yeah, you do have to worry about safety. So, if you build the God computer, don’t be stupid and tell it to win as many games of chess… no matter what! That’s not inevitable. That’s a bad design.

    1. Well as someone who’s a Control Systems engineer, I feel obligated to point out that Emergency Stops (E-Stops) are core safety systems. And they’re basically the same as unplugging the system.

      Granted, with big robots, there’s often a big fence around it, with a safety circuit connected to the door.

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