Tag Archives: morals

Of autonomous machines.


Last week we talked about how converging technologies can sometimes yield unpredictable results. One of the most influential players in the development of new technology is DARPA and the defense industry. There is a lot of technological convergence going on in the world of defense. Let’s combine robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, bio-engineering, ubiquitous surveillance, social media, and predictive algorithms for starters. All of these technologies are advancing at an exponential pace. It’s difficult to take a snapshot of any one of them at a moment in time and predict where they might be tomorrow. When you start blending them the possibilities become downright chaotic. With each step, it is prudent to ask if there is any meaningful review. What are the ramifications for error as well as success? What are the possibilities for misuse? Who is minding the store? We can hope that there are answers to these questions that go beyond platitudes like, “Don’t stand in the way of progress.”, “Time is of the essence.”, or “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

No comment.

I bring this up after having seen some unclassified documents on Human Systems, and Autonomous Defense Systems (AKA autonomous weapons). (See a previous blog on this topic.) Links to these documents came from a crowd-funded “investigative journalist” Nafeez Ahmed, publishing on a website called INSURGE intelligence.

One of the documents entitled Human Systems Roadmap is a slide presentation given to the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) conference last year. The list of agencies involved in that conference and the rest of the documents cited reads like an alphabet soup of military and defense organizations which most of us have never heard of. There are multiple components to the pitch, but one that stands out is “Autonomous Weapons Systems that can take action when needed.” Autonomous weapons are those that are capable of making the kill decision without human intervention. There is also, apparently some focused inquiry into “Social Network Research on New Threats… Text Analytics for Context and Event Prediction…” and “full spectrum social media analysis.” We could get all up in arms about this last feature, but recent incidents in places such as, Benghazi, Egypt, and Turkey had a social networking component that enabled extreme behavior to be quickly mobilized. In most cases, the result was a tragic loss of life. In addition to sharing photos of puppies, social media, it seems, is also good at organizing lynch mobs. We shouldn’t be surprised that governments would want to know how to predict such events in advance. The bigger question is how we should intercede and whether that decision should be made by a human being or a machine.

There are lots of other aspects and lots more documents cited in Ahmed’s lengthy albeit activistic report, but the idea here is that rapidly advancing technology is enabling considerations which were previously held to be science fiction or just impossible. Will we reach the point where these systems are fully operational before we reach the point where we know they are totally safe? It’s a problem when technology grows faster that policy, ethics or meaningful review. And it seems to me that it is always a problem when the race to make something work is more important than the understanding the ramifications if it does.

To be clear, I’m not one of those people who thinks that anything and everything that the military can conceive of is automatically wrong. We will never know how many catastrophes that our national defense services have averted by their vigilance and technological prowess. It should go without saying that the bad guys will get more sophisticated in their methods and tactics, and if we are unable to stay ahead of the game, then we will need to get used to the idea of catastrophe. When push comes to shove, I want the government to be there to protect me. That being said, I’m not convinced that the defense infrastructure (or any part of the tech sector for that matter) is as diligent to anticipate the repercussions of their creations as they are to get them functioning. Only individuals can insist on meaningful review.



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The ultimate wild card.


One of the things that futurists do when they imagine what might happen down the road is to factor in the wild card. Short of the sports or movie references a wild card is defined by dictionary.com as: “… of, being, or including an unpredictable or unproven element, person, item, etc.” One might use this term to say, “Barring a wild card event like a meteor strike, global thermonuclear war, or a massive earthquake, we can expect Earth’s population to grow by (x) percent.”

The thing about wild card events is that they do happen. 9/11 could be considered a wild card. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Katrina would also fall into this category. At the core, they are unpredictable, and their effects are widespread. There are think tanks that work on the probabilities of these occurrences and then play with scenarios for addressing them.

I’m not sure what to call something that would be entirely predictable but that we still choose to ignore. Here I will go with a quote:

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

― Malcolm Muggeridge

Some will discount this automatically because the depravity of man refers to the Christian theology that without God, our nature is hopeless. Or as Jeremiah would say, our heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).

If you don’t believe in that, then maybe you are willing to accept a more secular notion that man can be desperately stupid. To me, humanity’s uncanny ability to foul things up is the recurring (not-so) wild card. It makes all new science as much a potential disaster as it might be a panacea. We don’t consider it often enough. If we look back through my previous blogs from Transhumanism to genetic design, this threat looms large. You can call me a pessimist if you want, but the video link below stands as a perfect example of my point. It is a compilation of all the nuclear tests, atmospheric, underground, and underwater, since 1945. Some of you might think that after a few tests and the big bombs during WWII we decided to keep a lid on the insanity. Nope.

If you can watch the whole thing without sinking into total depression and reaching for the Clorox, you’re stronger than I am. And, sadly it continues. We might ask how we have survived this long.

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Enter the flaw.


I promised a drone update this week, but by now, it is probably already old news. It is a safe bet there are probably a few thousand more drones than last week. Hence, I’m going to shift to a topic that I think is moving even faster than our clogged airspace.

And now for an AI update. I’ve blogged previously about Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, but the evidence is mounting every day that he’s probably right.  The rate at which artificial intelligence is advancing is beginning to match nicely with his curve. A recent article on the Txchnologist website demonstrates how an AI system called Kulitta, is composing jazz, classical, new age and eclectic mixes that are difficult to tell from human compositions. You can listen to an example here. Not bad actually. Sophisticated AI creations like this underscore the realization that we can no longer think of robotics as the clunky mechanized brutes. AI can create. Even though it’s studying an archive of man-made creations the resulting work is unique.

First it learns from a corpus of existing compositions. Then it generates an abstract musical structure. Next it populates this structure with chords. Finally, it massages the structure and notes into a specific musical framework. In just a few seconds, out pops a musical piece that nobody has ever heard before.

The creator of Kulitta, Donya Quick says that this will not put composers out of a job, it will help them do their job better. She doesn’t say how exactly.

If even trained ears can’t always tell the difference, what does that mean for the masses? When we can load the “universal composer” app onto our phone and have a symphony written for ourselves, how will this serve the interests of musicians and authors?

The article continues:

Kulitta joins a growing list of programs that can produce artistic works. Such projects have reached a critical mass–last month Dartmouth College computational scientists announced they would hold a series of contests. They have put a call out seeking artificial intelligence algorithms that produce “human-quality” short stories, sonnets and dance music. These will be pitted against compositions made by humans to see if people can tell the difference.

The larger question to me is this: “When it all sounds wonderful or reads like poetry, will it make any difference to us who created it?”

Sadly, I think not. The sweat and blood that composers and artists pour into their compositions could be a thing of the past. If we see this in the fine arts, then it seems an inevitable consequence for design as well. Once the AI learns the characters, behaviors and personalities of the characters in The Lightstream Chronicles, it can create new episodes without me. Taking characters and setting that already exist as CG constructs, it’s not a stretch that it will be able to generate the wireframes, render the images, and layout the panels.

Would this app help me in my work? It could probably do it in a fraction of the time that it would take me, but could I honestly say it’s mine?

When art and music are all so easily reconstructed and perfect, I wonder if we will miss the flaw. Will we miss that human scratch on the surface of perfection, the thing that reminds us that we are human?

There is probably an algorithm for that, too. Just go to settings > humanness and use the slider.

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Meddling with the primal forces of nature.



One of the more ominous articles of recent weeks came from WIRED magazine in an article about the proliferation of DNA editing. The story is rich with technical talk and it gets bogged down in places but essentially it is about a group of scientists who are concerned about the Pandora’s Box they may have created with something called Crispr-Cas9, or Crispr for short. Foreseeing this as far back as 1975, the group thought that establishing “guidelines” for what biologists could and could not do; things like creating pathogens and mutations that could be passed on from generation to generation — maybe even in humans — were on the list of concerns. It all seemed very far off back in the 70’s, but not anymore. According to WIRED writer Amy Maxmen,

“Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people.”

Maxmen states that startups are launching with Crispr as their focus. Two quotes that I have used excessively come to mind. First, Tobias Revell: “Someone, somewhere in a lab is playing with your future.”1. Next, from a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis: “We don’t write laws to protect against impossible things, so when the impossible becomes possible, we shouldn’t be surprised that the law doesn’t protect against it…” 2.

And so, we play catch-up. From the WIRED article:

“It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them.”

The most disconcerting part of all this, to me, is that now, before the rules exist that even the smallest breach in protocol could unleash repercussions of Biblical proportions. Everything from killer mosquitoes and flying spiders, horrific mutations and pandemics are up for grabs.

We’re not even close to ready for this. Don’t tell me that it could eradicate AIDS or Huntington’s disease. That is the coat that is paraded out whenever a new technology peers its head over the horizon.

“Now, with less than $100, an ordinary arachnologist can snip the wing gene out of a spider embryo and see what happens when that spider matures.”

From the movie “Splice”. Sometimes bad movies can be the most prophetic.

It is time to get the public involved in these issues whether through grass-roots efforts or persistence with their elected officials to spearhead some legislation.

“…straight-out editing of a human embryo sets off all sorts of alarms, both in terms of ethics and legality. It contravenes the policies of the US National Institutes of Health, and in spirit at least runs counter to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. (Of course, when the US government said it wouldn’t fund research on human embryonic stem cells, private entities raised millions of dollars to do it themselves.) Engineered humans are a ways off—but nobody thinks they’re science fiction anymore.”

Maxmen interviewed Harvard geneticist George Church. In a closer to the article,

“When I ask Church for his most nightmarish Crispr scenario, he mutters something about weapons and then stops short. He says he hopes to take the specifics of the idea, whatever it is, to his grave. But thousands of other scientists are working on Crispr. Not all of them will be as cautious. “You can’t stop science from progressing,” Jinek says. “Science is what it is.” He’s right. Science gives people power. And power is unpredictable.”

Who do you trust?



1. Critical Exploits. Performed by Tobias Revell. YouTube. January 28, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2014. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlpq9M1VELU#t=364.
2. Farivar, Cyrus. “DOJ Calls for Drone Privacy Policy 7 Years after FBI’s First Drone Launched.” Ars Technica. September 27, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/09/doj-calls-for-drone-privacy-policy-7-years-after-fbis-first-drone-launched/.
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The Robo-Apocalypse. Part 2.


Last week I talked about how the South Koreans have developed a 50 caliber toting, nearly autonomous weapon system and have sold a few dozen around the world. This week I feel obligated to finish up on my promise of the drone with a pistol. I discovered this from a WIRED article. It was a little tongue-in-cheek piece that analyzed a YouTube video and concluded that pistol-packing drone is probably real. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t believe that this is a really bad idea, including the author of the piece. Nevertheless, if we were to make a list of unintended consequences of DIY drone technology, (just some simple brainstorming) the list, after a few minutes, would be a long one.

This week FastCo reported that  NASA held a little get-together with about 1,000 invited guests from the drone industry to talk about a plan to manage the traffic when, as the agency believes, “every home will have a drone, and every home will serve as an airport at some point in the future”. NASA’s plan takes things slowly. Still the agency predicts that we will be able to get our packages from Amazon and borrow a cup of sugar from Aunt Gladys down the street, even in populated areas, by 2019.

Someone taking action is good news as we work to fix another poorly conceived technology that quickly went rogue. Unfortunately, it does nothing about the guy who wants to shoot down the Amazon drone for sport (or anyone/anything else for that matter).

On the topic of bad ideas, this week The Future Of Life Institute, a research organization out of Boston issued an open letter warning the world that autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence (AI) were imminent. The reasonable concern here is that a computer will do the kill-or-not-kill, bomb-or-not-bomb thinking, without the human fail-safe. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.” [Emphasis mine.]

The letter is short. You should read it. For once we have and example of those smart people I alluded to last week, the ones with compassion and vision. For virtually every “promising” new technology—from the seemingly good to the undeniably dangerous) we need people who can foresee the unintended consequences of one-sided promises. Designers, scientists, and engineers are prime candidates to look into the future and wave these red flags. Then the rest of the world needs to pay attention.

Once again, however, the technology is here and whether it is legal or illegal, banned or not banned the cat is out of the bag. It is kind of like a nuclear explosion. Some things you just can’t take back.

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The robo-apocalypse. Part 1.

Talk of robot takeovers is all the rage right now.

I’m good with this because the evidence is out there that robots will continue to get smarter and smarter but the human condition, being what it is, we will continue to do stupid s**t. Here are some examples from the news this week.

1. The BBC reported this week that South Korea has deployed something called The Super aEgis II, a 50-caliber robotic machine gun that knows who is an enemy and who isn’t. At least that’s the plan. The company that built and sells the Super aEgis is DoDAAM. Maybe that is short for do damage. The BBC astutely notes,

“Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, that ‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’, looks like it will soon be broken.”

Asimov was more than a great science-fiction writer, he was a Class A futurist. He clearly saw the potential for us to create robots that were smarter and more powerful than we are. He figured there should be some rules. Asimov used the kind of foresight that responsible scientists, technologists and designers should be using for everything we create. As the article continues, Simon Parkin of the BBC quotes Yangchan Song, DoDAAM’s managing director of strategy planning.

“Automated weapons will be the future. We were right. The evolution has been quick. We’ve already moved from remote control combat devices, to what we are approaching now: smart devices that are able to make their own decisions.”

Or in the words of songwriter Donald Fagen,

“A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision…1

Relax. The world is full of these fellows. Right now the weapon/robot is linked to a human who gives the OK to fire, and all customers who purchased the 30 units thus far have opted for the human/robot interface. But the company admits,

“If someone came to us wanting a turret that did not have the current safeguards we would, of course, advise them otherwise, and highlight the potential issues,” says Park. “But they will ultimately decide what they want. And we develop to customer specification.”

A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.
A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.

They are currently working on the technology that will help their machine make the right decision on its own., but the article cites several academics and researchers who see red flags waving. Most concur that teaching a robot right from wrong is no easy task. Compound the complexity because the fellows who are doing the programming don’t always agree on these issues.

Last week I wrote about Google’s self-driving car. Of course, this robot has to make tough decisions too. It may one day have to decide whether to hit the suddenly appearing baby carriage, the kid on the bike, or just crash the vehicle. In fact, Parkin’s article brings Google into the picture as well, quoting Colin Allen,

“Google admits that one of the hardest problems for their programming is how an automated car should behave at a four-way stop sign…”

Humans don’t do such a good job at that either. And there is my problem with all of this. If the humans who are programming these machines are still wrestling with what is ethically right or wrong, can a robot be expected to do better. Some think so. Over at DoDAMM,

“Ultimately, we would probably like a machine with a very sound basis to be able to learn for itself, and maybe even exceed our abilities to reason morally.”

Based on what?

Next week: Drones with pistols.


1. Donald Fagen, IGY From the Night Fly album. 1982
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