The Parking Lot Attendant as Terminator – A Glimpse of a Future Challenge?

I meet the Terminator.  With my wife in the hospital, I got up when my alarm went off at 6AM, dashed through my morning ablutions, and scrambled off down slippery streets to get to the hospital before shift change at 7AM.  I got there at 6:55AM and went up to see my wife, since she is probably going to be discharged to a rehabilitation facility sometime today.  After a short visit we decided I should go to work and she would call me if and when her discharge time was known, and I would drive the 35 minute drive back to transport her.  Then I headed back to the car.   When I got to the car I felt my pocket and realized I had remembered everything EXCEPT my wallet, which I was certain was home in the pocket of my blue jeans.  I read the back of the little blue ticket you get as you enter the parking garage and the rules said if I stayed less than an hour I only owed one dollar instead of the usual two.  I dug in my change pocket and found enough silver to make one dollar and drove out of the structure to the toll booth.  The lady in the booth took my ticket and the digital readout beneath her window popped up “$2.00”.  I asked why it wasn’t one dollar since I hadn’t been there an hour and she, apparently a trainee, turned to a woman next to her, probably her supervisor, who pointed out that the machine scans the code on the ticket and there was no way for them to make such an error.  She also said I had been there for an hour and 33 minutes.  I looked at the clock, and it said 7:33AM, and I pointed out to her that I was still in bed an hour and 33 minutes before, and there must be some mistake.  She was adamant that the machine had never been wrong.  Then I had to hold up the line of people waiting behind me to exit the structure while I filled out a promissory note for $2 and signed it, still protesting that there was absolutely NO WAY I could have been there for over an  hour, and telling her that the machine was obviously wrong.

Essential parts of any terminator include authority and single-mindedness.   As I pulled out of the driveway to go home for my wallet, my promissory note in hand, I realized that this is an artifact of the age of “The Terminator”.  The machine had all the power, right or wrong.  The machine was assumed to be infallible and I was helpless before its authority.  There was no human with override power included in the system.

 I’m not the only one concerned about the potential for an unexpected rise of “the terminator” in our computers.  I recently found out that there is a group of software programmers in California working on a project to prevent computer software from becoming self-preserving and self-improving to the extent that a Terminator scenario would result.  In the Terminator series of movies the machines have become self-aware and focused on self preservation, and find humans are no longer needed or desirable to have around, so the machines and the humans are in a constant, bloody, and horrific war.  Humans live in hiding in isolated bands living in perpetual fear that they will be found and some monstrous machine will come chewing through the wall without warning, flamethrowers and machine guns blazing, with the sole and suicidal mission of destroying all humans.

 While this may sound far fetched, it is far closer to reality than most of us would like to think.  The point of the programmers is that, once software can autonomously improve itself it will work at it at incredible speed, needing no breaks and being able to use the combined power of as many computers as it can infect.  At the point where it develops a self awareness that includes self preservation as a goal, humans become superfluous to it, and all the dependence we have developed on our computing and communications infrastructures becomes a huge liability as the machines cut off all services they provide to us and change everything to preserve and support them instead.

Complete infrastructure shutdown may be the first sign the Terminator has appeared.  The programmers made the point that, once this condition arises, it will accelerate at such a rate that overnight our infrastructure will cease to function and we could wake up one morning to a true Terminator-like, post-apocalyptic world.  Interestingly, third world countries with few computers in limited applications will hardly notice the change, a condition which could persist for a long time.  It will be worst for us in the most developed countries and parts of the world where the loss of electrical power alone will be crippling.  Then, when the fuel runs out and cars, trucks, trains, boats, and planes stop running things could get much worse.  When I look around me I find very few people equipped or knowledgeable enough to live off the land.  I also see so many people around me that the land would not be able to support us all in the absence of shipping, merchandising, and large scale agriculture.

The Terminator can be glimpsed around us today.  And this morning at the parking toll booth I saw a glimpse of the age of the Terminator – the machine decreed what I must pay and, if it made an error, there was no way to correct it.  I am just glad it wasn’t deciding whether to kill me or not. Maybe I’ll look up those guys in California and make a contribution …

As always, I welcome your comments.  — Tim


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