Hazards of a computerized world


Sometime ago I watched a movie on T.V. called “I Robot”. It was about a time when robots did human office jobs with three rules to keep humans safe. However a detective becomes concerned that not everything is as it seems when the founder of U.S. Robotics is thought to have killed himself. He enlists the help of a robot and finds that a humanoid robot murdered him, and in doing so discovers a sinister conspiracy to enslave the human race to robots.

Call it what you wish, but I think I Robot raises some interesting, if not slightly disturbing questions about the extent to which we should rely on robots. But it also touched I thought on a deeper question about how much faith we should put in computers. Because without doubt the threat of cyber crime, cyber terrorism and possibly cyber violence – where machines commit acts of violence because the computer controlling them has gone rogue.

In the world of Star Wars, where droids perform all sorts of functions as manufacturing clones, being guards at military installations, serving as the flight mechanic in the starfighters and of course being C-3PO and R2D2, flashes of a mechanized world can also be seen. I particularly remember one incident where Admiral Ackbar and Commander Wedge Antilles have a disagreement about over whether the Commander, who wants to move his squadron somewhere after an exhausting operation is told to rest or a droid will be ordered to sedate him. Whilst I don’t see droids taking the place of nurses in the immediate future, it did raise an interesting question about the ethical issues that would arise should this ever happen.

Much more immediately though there are two particularly concerning cases that have come to my attention about instances of automated transport not going as it should. One involves a car and the other an aircraft.

The self driving car may sound great in theory, but does the potential for the computer controlling one to be hijacked or go rogue without reason raise any concerns? They should.

Does the potential for the computers on board an airline to go rogue cause you any concern as a passenger? It should. A case has already happened with a Q.A.N.T.A.S. flight where the computer suddenly stalled the aircraft sending it into a potentially catastrophic plunge for several hundred feet not once but twice in a matter of minutes. Yes, it is true that millions of people fly totally safely every day around the world. It is true that aviation is the safest form of transport by a long shot. Still, if a computer controlling an aircraft can go rogue on its own, what could it at the hands of a cyber hacker or if the aircraft has no manual over rides?

The potential for cyber hackers either acting on their own or at the directive of a Government or terrorist organization to take control of vital data systems and websites was graphically demonstrated last weekend. A ransomware bug called “Wanna Cry” was set loose by hackers and it struck 100 countries over about 48 hours. It takes computers hostage and threatens the owner with the loss of their files unless they comply with demands. To recover their files in the case of Wanna Cry, several hundred dollars worth of Bitcoin currency to a specified address. To ensure it was not dismissed as a joke full recovery was only possible if the specified demands were met within 3 days; partial recovery could be enabled by typing the word decrypt in like this: <decrypt> or full recovery by paying the specified amount.

And also, do we want to end up like the Simpsons do in one episode (or maybe it is the movie), where they move to a house where nobody has to do anything – it is all done for them by robots? Having literally all the time each day to do whatever you wish might seem great, but the Simpsons came to regret it.

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