Category Archives: Thoughts and speculation

Cracks in the Code

Why are we enthralled and appalled by the idea of a robot apocalypse?

Getting lost in the fantasy of a film or a book, being petrified by the impending end of the world and knowing at the back of our minds that it’s not real is exciting and entertaining, but why are so many stories like this? Perhaps the reality of our world is too harsh to accept and this form of escapism helps. Or, it could simply be that it’s easier to write apocalyptic stories of dread and danger than it is aspirational and inspirational utopias. It’s certainly a lot easier than writing about the human race messily stumbling forwards in a, “can’t quite work out who the good guys are,” kind of way.

Over the past few months I’ve met and shared a stage with scientists, sometimes to talk about their work and sometimes for them to respond to my work. It’s been fascinating and I want to do a lot more of it.

During one of these meetings we talked about what was acceptable on the dystopian spectrum and, in their view, Black Mirror was good and Terminator was bad. In fact, I’ve been particularly struck by how these collaborations have counteracted the tendency towards writing apocalyptic and improbable stories. It’s almost as if there’s a symbiotic tension; writing science fiction with a view to highlighting the potential uses of scientists’ discoveries while in their presence also makes me write stories that are not only entertaining but also plausible. I have to say it’s a relief the reviews for my new collection, Eating Robots, have compared it favourably to Black Mirror and there’s no mention of Terminator.

Through work with the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the Human Brain Project at Kings College and various events with Virtual Futures I’ve been exposed to science and art that I wouldn’t have normally come across. It’s these conversations and observations that have led me to believe that we shouldn’t be worrying so much about the robot apocalypse as looking for the cracks in the crevices of poorly written or inadvertently biased code.

When choosing what would be in Eating Robots and Other Stories I decided it was only right that the scientists I’ve been working with should have a voice so I invited them to contribute a response to whichever story they wanted. Christine Aicardi, a Senior Research Fellow at Kings College London, touches on this notion of the cracks in the code in her response to The Thrown Away Things. She says, “Instead, it may lurk where we don’t expect it, in the discarded and the obsolete, in the faulty lines of code of an ill-designed and unmaintained software – here, in the decision-making modules of the bric-a-brac.”

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is the messy bit in-between the dystopic and the utopic more likely it’s also much more interesting.

If you feel the same then I’d love to hear your views on the stories in Eating Robots and if you happen to be in London on 6 June then please come along to the launch. I’ll be reading from the collection and Christine, among others, will be there to give their response.

photo credit: Eugen Naiman Green rock via photopin (license)

Are selfish AIs a good thing?

Could it be true that Google Deep Mind has discovered that AIs are more likely to choose a course of action that tests their ability than one that might lead to the outcome they’ve been programmed to achieve?

This article on Outerplaces suggests just that, based on their understanding of this Deep Mind study.

Should this worry us?

Well, maybe.

Or, maybe not.

Of course it’s unnerving and possibly dangerous for an artificial intelligence to take the road of least boredom rather than the road to achieve its goals.

But, stop for a moment.

Let’s take this a step further and assume it’s true that at times of scarcity humans struggle to know which co-operation is positive and which is naively foolish and so they tend towards domination. Then imagine a bunch of AIs that prefer working out when it’s better to co-operate and compromise. Now, presuming we put AIs in charge, we have the possibility that the deep down driving force of those that run the world is orientated towards mutual benefit.

Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

photo credit: mikecogh Sculpture: ‘The Foundation’ via photopin (license)

Automation: a life of luxury and the death of democracy?

There’s been a fair amount of press coverage lately on the potential for artificial intelligence and robots to take our jobs and how a Universal Basic Income could be part of the solution. Something the Silicon Valley tech-giants are putting their shoulders behind.

Some say that’s a good thing, while others disagree.

The European Parliament’s legal affairs committee report on Civil Law Rules for Robotics “takes the view that in the light of the possible effects on the labour market of robotics and AI a general basic income should be seriously considered, and invites all Member States to do so.”

As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of Universal Basic Income for all sorts of reasons. Not least because it frees us up to live the life we want to and, as far as I can tell, it’s the most credible way to have a capitalist society that allows people to opt-out if they want to.

However, it was the link between major corporations, automation and democracy that struck me most at a gathering of London Futurists where Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams talked about their book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.

The argument from the audience that captured my attention went something like this…

With full automation we don’t have to work, but stuff can still be produced for people to buy and economies can still grow.

There’s only a handful of companies that can realise full automation e.g. Google, Amazon, Facebook.

Universal Basic Income is possible in an automated and thriving economy.

And now for the scary bit… the few mega-companies that are generating the profits and controlling the economy will have the ultimate say in how the country runs. It’ll be their shareholders that hold the power. Democracy dies, sold off for a life of doing as you please.

It certainly made me stop and think.

I haven’t changed my mind, but I have developed a little more caution.

photo credit: WanderingtheWorld ( ‘Bonfire’, United States, New York, The Hamptons via photopin (license)