Archive for April 2014

Skynet and terminators.

April 29, 2014

This article came across the desk last week:  It’s about the drive to put autonomy into more and more computer systems and the inevitability of this.  And of course it’s about the possibility of it all going wrong and Skynet deciding to get rid of us pesky humans.

Talking about autonomous systems, my brother works as a diesel wrench on heavy earthmovers at Queensland mines.  And they have several autonomous dump trucks.  Big dump trucks.  They do the run themselves… and when something goes wrong they tell the world, drive themselves to the workshop… park and wait until they get fixed.  Or the sun expands and destroys the planet.  Whichever happens first.  Machines do patience well.  Apparently so far these machines do about as well as human drivers and do better when it comes to fault detection. autonomous dump trucks

I found the article interesting, but way simplistic in its treatment of the issue.  There is no doubt that an autonomous self aware artificial intelligence could be dangerous.  If it had a drive to self protection, it would want to secure its own essential supplies and it could hardly not regard us as a threat.  If it could gain access to methods to do something about it, it might very well do so.  There is a theory that intelligent organic life in the universe might be very rare because intelligent machine life tends to supplant it.  Very science fictionish.  But genuinely scary.  And intelligent machines could travel the stars.  It’s a long way, but as I said machines do do patience very well.

The article says in part about controlling an Artificial Intelligence “Perhaps the most powerful tool would be restricting it to custom hardware. If the AI was unable to run on anything but a specific piece of equipment, it would have limited effect on other systems. ”  Oh yeah?  That terminator seemed to be capable of substantially effecting other systems.  An armed AI drone could too.  A missile will substantially effect many  systems.  This response strikes me like people saying “Violence never solves anything” – clearly they have never lost a fight.

Of course a single drone is not likely to decide to eliminate humanity.  And if it did try, it’s fuel… weapon load  and spares limited… cannot service itself,  and is very limited in the amount of damage it can do.  The threat, if threat there is, would come from networks.  That drone needs (and in our society has) a massive network to keep it flying.   For a Skynet system to be dangerous, it would need some critical level of networking and,  given that our  tools are mostly designed for the human form, it would probably in fact require aid from people or access to human shaped robots.  (Although not to drive the mine dump trucks).  So Skynet is a long way away.

Of course a networked global AI need not be hostile to humanity.  It need not even have a drive to self preservation.   If anyone has ever watched the old John Carpenter student film Dark Star, you may remember the  talking bomb – entirely happy to discuss philosophy, but had to explode on schedule.  However the smart money would be on  intelligence having a drive for self preservation.   Thermosteller bomb




Printers are like coffee machines

April 22, 2014

Well, there is a lot of hype and information about 3D printers around at the moment, as per our last blog post. However, we all need to note that they are similar to many modern machines, and we need to consider the same issues before jumping on the bandwagon and purchasing one. Like standard printers – and coffee machines – the upfront cost is only a very small part of the total cost of the machine over its lifetime (commonly referred to as TCO – total cost of ownership – when talking about technology).

Consider the cost of a printer, coffee machine or 3D printer initially. Currently, most of these can be bought for somewhere between a couple of hundred and a thousand dollars, depending on the detail that we require. For a standard printer, you will pay far more for the paper and printer cartridges that you use to keep printing. For a coffee machine, the coffee pods or ground coffee and filter papers will cost far more than the machine itself. And for a 3D printer, you will either be using plastic or metal depending on the work being carried out, but again the materials cost will be much greater than the initial cost of the printer.

So, like any technology purchase, you need to look into the ongoing costs as well as the upfront outlay – because the TCO is much more related to the ongoing costs.