At Humorix Splatz writes: “Sci-fi writers and Hollywood movie directors have predicted for years that computers will become self-aware and will then immediately proceed to enslave or destroy mankind. Writers always seem to think that artificial intelligence will automatically turn evil just as soon as somebody hits the power switch.”
He retorts: “Oh, please. Computers are only as smart as their designers, and since right now most of the world’s software is designed by the Microsoft Marketing Department, we don’t have much to worry about.”
His piece is a humorous one about DRM. However I’d like to go in a different direction. I claim that computers will indeed take over, and that it is already happening. Well, actually, they will not take over in the usual Sci-fi evil-robot sense, through AI, but that we will actually give them control, of our own free will, and we probably won’t even notice — until it’s too late.
I’m not talking about the classic Sci-fi scenario in which a Dr. Evil character plots to take over the world. The computers don’t have to plot against us. We are doing their bidding for them, all with good intentions. I’ll cite an example: the typical grocery supermarket. If the power goes out, customers cannot buy any products and have to wait in line until the power comes on, even if they have cash to pay. If the computers are down, the store cannot operate, even though there are goods on the shelves and people to buy them. The computers have gained mastery over the human employees and shoppers, without any AI, and without Dr. Evil lifting a finger.
This dependence on computers builds up over time, often without a long-term plan. Various independent projects can sometimes conspire to produce unintended consequences. The humans gradually turn over control in small innocent bits at a time, until one day, they have totally lost control and they don’t know how or when it happened.
I am not a ludite. People gain a great deal from technolgy and have been doing so for a long time. One could make similar arguments to the above about many technologies: electricity, processed foods, the airplane, etc. However, I think it’s important that we be aware of our reliance on computers, understand how it happens, and what the consequences are. Some of the preparations done for Y2K should become routine, such as assessing the risks and dependence on various computer systems, and developing contingencies to deal with outages and downtime. Without doing real studies into the data and gathering informatioin on the interdependencies of various systems, IT managers and technical experts often make assuptions about what the important computers are, which ones need contingency plans and which ones do not. Because these dependencies are often complex, such assuptions are usually wrong. I would suggest that most companies probably do not fully understand or appreciate the degree to which they are dependent on computers (including embedded computers and other intelligent devices). Likewise, and by extension, the average person probably does not appreciate or understand the degree to which they have become dependent on computers and computer systems. It may very well be that a given computer outage could affect their lives in unexpected ways, perhaps to the point of loss of job, loss of property, or perhaps their very basic needs, for instance if suddenly one could not purchase food.
So, the computers don’t have to develop a plan to enslave or destroy mankind. And neither does some evil mastermind. We just let things run their current course, and one day we find ourselves enslaved by computers through our own actions, just as the shopper and employee at the supermarket become enslaved when the manager reports ‘the computer is down.”