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.

Drones: the good, the bad and the ugly

To the tech nerd they are possibly the new craze on the block. Anyone who has seen a drone in the There is no doubt that the use of drones will continue to increase. So too will the applications for which they are used. Most applications will be perfectly legitimate and some even beneficial. But there will also be applications for which drone use must be frowned upon. So, taking a play on the title of the movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, how do drones stack up?

The Good

Anyone who has been in Christchurch involved with the demolition of unstable buildings or ones in tricky to reach spots where foot access may not be practical, the use of drones to ascertain the layout of the property and identify hazards might well be the safest and easiest option. With a camera and live data stream back to the operator, its ability to quickly get an overview in real time and relay the data ensures that not only can the operator see what is going on, but can refer back as necessary.

I first saw a drone with absolute clarity when the Christchurch Police Station was imploded at the end of May 2015. Hovering overhead at about 70 metres, with its owner on the roof of an adjacent building it was one of several used to record the very public felling, watched both in person and on the internet by thousands of people, thanks to its data stream.

The bad

Unfortunately there are a few users out there who are likely to have malicious intents. There will also be a few out there who have not considered privacy issues, or not thought about the hazards of launching drones around facilities such as airports where public safety could be jeopardized. These are the users who need to be cautioned before they break the law or wonder why someone tried to down their drone. Most will comply, but the ones that do not should have their machines confiscated.

The ugly

Drones also have military uses. Whilst some of the uses might be good, such as conducting surveillance over large areas of territory, drones have been implicated in some very questionable attacks in the so called “War on Terrorism”. These attacks have stemmed from attempts to liquidate senior Islamic State officials as well as al-Qaida militants among others. In doing so they have exposed a very grey area of international law in terms of assassinations and invading other nations air space. But more tragically drones have murdered innocent people. Wedding parties have been an unfortunate but common target. No one has been charged with anything yet and the U.S. military says the orders come from senior military officers or the C.I.A.

And a cautionary tale

However, there are privacy issues that go with remote controlled drones, whose operator cannot be seen. In the week just ending Domino’s pizza announced it was working with the Government to develop a drone that could deliver pizza’s to a person’s door. Although this might seem economical to Domino’s as it would avoid having to pay staff to deliver the pizza’s by foot, serious and perhaps irreconcilable issues with the customers privacy may arise. ┬áThis is because the drone will be storing data necessary for it to fly to the location where the customer lives. In the time it takes at the property delivering the pizza’s it could be collecting data about the layout of the property and activities, or people living there gathered by its video feed. The customer will only have Domino’s – most likely spoken and not written – word that it wipes the data from the drone and does not store it in any form.