A story in The Independent yesterday began with the following hilarious line: “Facebook has shut down two artificial intelligences that appeared to be chatting to each other in a strange language only they understood.”
The Facebook Corp had set the two “chatbots” a challenge of trading hats, balls and books, and their scientists were possibly standing by to glow with pride as the machines took their first shy and childish steps into the world of commerce.
Instead, “the robots appeared to chant at each other in a language that they understood but which appears mostly incomprehensible to humans.”
The devices were turned off and NOT turned on again.
“Stupid robots”, you may think. “And stupid Facebook.”
But it may turn out to be more a case of stupid everyone else.
In his fabulous book “Future Crimes”, Marc Goodman describes how computing power is accelerating to a moment in the future when “it outpaces mankind’s ability to to comprehend it and machine intelligence will exceed human intelligence.”
He quotes an expert guessing that that moment will come in 2045.
When it does, he says, it will not be a question of who controls the machines, but whether anyone can.
Facebook’s experiment seemed to provide a rather chilling glimpse into this future. But that’s the future and perhaps it may not come.
More importantly for today, though, the experiment seems to have significant and alarming relevance to the forthcoming/already here Internet of Things (IoT), the process by which everything electronic will be sufficiently “smart” to “talk” to each other.
Those poor instruments which are not electronic (eg people) will be made so by embedding chips.
For those people (ie me) whose enthusiasm for technology is akin to a teenager’s fondness for visiting the relatives , having to make things synchronise with each other is not so much a step on the path to them being broken as them never working in the first place.
The eagerness of companies to monitor your activities is not to help you optimise your milk consumption.
But even if you can persuade your white goods/ central heating/vehicle etc to hang out together, when machines “chat” it’s inevitable that before long the fridge will get into a pissing contest with the thermostat, or your phone will develop a crush on your car’s central locking but the Qashqai just isn’t into handhelds. Well then. They’re having a party and you are not invited.
That experiment would have to be switched off too. And technology is not noted for it’s after-sales ability to repair itself.
But the other sinister part to the push for IoT is why? Why are power generators suddenly so keen to help us with our heating? When are companies ever keen to help with anything? Why this switch from glacial call-centre indifference to benevolent concern for your wellbeing? What difference does it make anyway that people with cars can turn their hot water on while immersed in the experience of a lane closure on the approach to the Hanger Lane gyratory? Why is this such a quantum leap forward? And all that bullshit about your fridge being able to tell you if you’re out of milk – most people have already implemented a system to cope with that eventuality and don’t need their Samsung Multi-Door to text them about it and call them “mate” into the bargain. Doesn’t this change of tone violently activate another piece of tech – the alarm bell?
Goodman (a former cop turned tech investigator because he was the only one in the police department who knew how to operate an early computer) has a very sinister answer. The eagerness of companies to monitor your activities is not to help you optimise your milk consumption, but to know exactly what you are doing, so they can harvest that data and sell it – to people who want to sell you things.
In one particularly chilling episode he describes how smart electricity meters are able to identify which television programmes you are watching, even if they are streamed or recorded, because every programme has a precise electronic signature like a fingerprint, caused by certain colours requiring different amounts of power, at whatever level the electrical equivalent of microscopic is.
Viewing habits are apparently an excellent guide to the tastes, socio-economic background and behaviours of an individual.
Among the most successful and enthusiastic organisations when it comes to putting people in touch with those who want to sell them their wares is Facebook.
So heaven knows what they’re up to in there with their Rock ‘em Sock ‘em salesmen robots, but it doesn’t feel as though they are trying very hard to fix the internet for your benefit just at the moment.