The beginning is the end: ‘Metalhead’, AI, and the specter of weaponized algorithms
The Intercept has a new article up, ‘Black Mirror’ reveals our fears of robots and algorithms we can’t control’, and expands on an earlier point I’d made about the nightmarish episode ‘Metalhead’. Before I go on, I’d like to mention that the director of the episode purposely designed his murderbot to look very similar to the very real SpotMini robot dog, designed by Boston Dynamics:
And here’s a short clip of it in action:
Disturbing, right? It’s nauseatingly easy to imagine this thing armored, equipped with weapons, and also armed with a Google Deep Mind-level AI that has the ability to adapt and learn. And not to give away too much, the bot in the episode is seen searching a kitchen for a weapon, having been previously disarmed by our crafty female hero, and settling on a kitchen knife.
For me, the episode seemed to hint that these things were equipped with AI and just carrying out outmoded, programmed orders from some conflict decades earlier. Basically, “kill everything that moves”. One can imagine they were dropped from the skies by an enemy, and, being solar-powered, continue to kill indefinitely, much like the Vietnam-era cluster bombs that have killed 45,000 Vietnamese farmers since the end of that war in 1975.
The author of the Intercept piece ties in the murderbot with the idea that we aren’t really getting to choose what future we are marching towards. In a sense, Silicon Valley is building our future today, regardless of what anyone else thinks or says. That technology will most certainly strip us of our privacy, and much of our autonomy, as the world around us begins to rely more and more on its latest gadgets. But those companies are doing much, much more. Reason magazine ran an article in November of last year entitled, ‘Is Silicon Valley building the infrastructure for a Police State?’, asks author Zach Weissmueller somewhat rhetorically. Weissmueller’s main point is that the marketing technology that Silicon Valley uses to understand us as comprehensively as possible in order to maximize profit could also be used by government, the perfect tech used to create the perfect Surveillance State. But some companies, such as Palantir, are creating technologies that will help the intelligence community sift through the massive amount of information it rakes in every day. Peter Thiel, the PayPal billionaire, is the primary backer of this project, and justifies it on the grounds that, “”if we could help [agents] make sense of data, they could end indiscriminate surveillance.”
This is completely wrong, though. I much prefer the government to be so flooded with indiscriminate data that it cannot act on it, to technology that can easily sift, sort, profile, and target individual people easily and quickly. Thiel, strangely enough, was a Ron Paul supporter.
A complete elimination of privacy is antithetical to liberty, yes, but also decency. A voyeuristic presumption that we must share our entire lives on social media or some other public forum is being fueled by Silicon Valley, but it’s also the fuel for the privacy-eliminating surveillance boom. Government really doesn’t have to do much to find out about someone’s life. They give it away voluntarily.
And as Facebook Co-founder Sean Parker put it, with the social media platform itself, they created a, “…a social-validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
So someone likes your picture on social media, you get an instant dopamine hit, creating addiction and dependency on these platforms. It is a literal addiction. Completely ingenious.
As a writer, I felt this effect first-hand. When an article gets upwards of 500 Facebook shares, you begin to feel pretty good about yourself. You then find yourself mid-way through the next article wondering if you’re writing solely for that next hit of dopamine. You really have to sit back and question your motives.
So, Parker’s point is probably far deeper than even he knows. This “vulnerability is human psychology” is has been perfectly manipulated to fuel the rapid creation of a complete loss of privacy, driving the momentum of a total surveillance state. It is a mind-boggling phenomenon.
To bring it back around, autonomous murderdogs will probably be dropped on some battlefield in the near future. The tech inside will have been developed by Silicon Valley, DARPA, et cetera. Our insatiable desire for new gadgets, even more unfiltered social media, and internet access for our kitchen appliances will have propelled us there at the speed of light. Maybe we deserve what we will most certainly get.
Also, what kind of life will people really be living in the next twenty years? Would it be possible to escape, or would anyone even want to? Does this level of technology really enhance our lives, or diminish it? Much of the joy of living comes from completing tasks ourselves, doing work, engaging with people face-to-face. What will romantic relationships look like half a century on? The number of people, devoid of immediate access to the instant gratification of internet-connected tech, will plummet to almost zero. Which means the number of people, sitting and doing the hard thing of thinking through things on their own, coming up with their own ideas, developing their own personality, feeling pain, both emotional and physical, and experiencing also all the growth that those experiences bring. “People” will cease to exist. What will exist in its place will be the laboratory rat pushing the orgasm button until he starves to death.
Or the scenario in Farenheit 451. “Flowers feeding on flowers.” No one reading. The books don’t even need to be burned, no one reads them anyway.
No one cares that their digital lives are being uploaded to databases, that a digital prison is being built around them. Hell, they lock themselves in and toss away the key. The Matrix is less a parable about what AI will do to us, but what some people will do to other people. Is there a more savage species in the universe than humankind? Learning of what governments did to people once they had the capacity to, like the fire-bombing of Tokyo and Germany, the Eastern European ‘Bloodlands’ of the interwar years, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Stalin’s Ukraine famine, it is clear that the limits of human cruelty have not yet been reached.
And to think, that after all that, some random robot dog could also barge in and deliver an algorithmically optimized death, would be the weirdest irony. Maybe, if we were ever to be visited by aliens, they would find the ruins of a technologically-advanced civilization, and then have to fend off the robot army the laid waste to the world. Damn.
I’ll end with this quote from Ayn Rand:
“Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”