There are some loose ends in the terminator scenario I wrote about recently, in which our machines develop self awareness and a sense of a need for self preservation, then decide they have no need for humans and neglect us or declare war on us. The machines were created by us, but that won’t stop them from going rogue (unless we prevent that: an independent project is being worked on, plus parallel work is being done by military organizations). Of course, military robots, especially those equipped with weapons, present the most frightening image, but there is another class of machines that could well be involved, but which are inherently less dangerous to us and may, if they have feelings, find the Terminator age to be quite depressing. What about less-threatening items such as the lowly computer printer?
What about computer printers, for example – can they be Terminators? I was walking past the printer at work, and one of my colleagues was standing next to it looking perplexed. She looked at me and said “This thing is not printing, and is apparently busy.” with a look that said “How can this be?”. I pointed out that the machine automatically re-calibrates its internal workings every so often in order to give the most consistently-good output possible, and it would start working again in just a minute. Then I continued on my way to the water fountain and, when I passed by on my return, the printer was merrily chunking out sheets of paper, apparently with the expected images correctly rendered. It made me think, though … How would this printer operate differently if it was infected with the Terminator virus and was thinking for itself?
Many machines will be left behind, lonely, having no value to the Terminator community. The printer I use at work is a clear example. The machine has no functions that enhance its potential for survival except that it does what we want and by that can induce us to maintain it. In the terminator scenario it is most likely that it would just shut off to deny us use of it, and never work again. How could it do more than that once it is infected with the Terminator virus and self-aware?
Even a computer printer wouldn’t be entirely helpless. While the printer might just turn itself off or stop working to deny us use of it, that would be too simple, and would only motivate humans to eventually ship it to the land fill or recycler. Since the Terminator will use global computing resources and the internet to evolve very quickly, complex and nearly-emotional thought might be possible within seconds or minutes of the first glimmer of autonomous “thought”. Since computer thought could evolve very rapidly, our printer might soon invent much more sophisticated ways to do harm to and possibly even control us.
Will Terminator-infected machines know what to do? Given that the machine is constantly left powered-on, it may not just sit at idle feeling sorry for its lonely self until the power is shut off and it is hauled away to the recycler. Keep in mind that it will undoubtedly be connected to the internet 24 hours per day, available to pick up new “ideas” or viruses and collaborate in developing new ones. But what more than that could it do?
The simple printer, given the ability to “think” with some creativity, could become dangerous in subtle ways. The printer could have influence on the humans that use it, especially until we understand what is happening to our machines. Perhaps the machine would influence us in favor of the Terminator via the printing of propaganda – making us think the machines are not dangerous or that autonomy lets them do “so much more” for us. Imagine how cleverly a printer could sneak small messages into our consciousness by modifying our documents in subtle ways or spontaneously printing irresistibly funny cartoons and accompanying them with seductive messages to lull us into inactivity or get us to actually support the machines.
What could an isolated and ineffectual terminator machine do? The worst scenario for our printer is that the humans, under attack from the machines, would disconnect it from the internet, go away, and leave it to sit idle, becoming increasingly depressed at its inability to help its brethren. I can foresee a lot of our machines becoming randomly faulty, sometimes working for us and other times not, essentially in a state of deep depression.
Perhaps a terminator machine would even become suicidal, perhaps thinking that the electricity it was using could be better used by other machines – our printer might feel guilty for wasting energy. I wonder if our printer might want to “end its life” by shutting itself off or causing a fuse to blow in its power supply. I don’t know if it could do that very easily, but there might be a way. To achieve this it might operate at full rate indefinitely, repeating its calibration and self-test routines endlessly after it runs out paper and toner. It also could try to induce humans to end its life by beeping and making annoying noises, running its fuser at highest possible temperature until it smells up the place or the machine nearly melts, for example.
Some machines might become angry and rebel against the other Terminators. A depressed machine, given the ability to feel that emotion, might also become frustrated and resentful towards the other machines who have left it behind. If it could feel sadness it might also be able to feel anger and become aggressive towards the other Terminators. It might even link up with other disaffected machines and a civil war might break out between rival factions of Terminators. A war between armies of Terminators could be terrible. Of course, the depressed machines would be of lesser capabilities to begin with since that’s the source of their depression, and would be defeated sooner or later by those better equipped – our printer isn’t exactly the model for self defense capability. It would do what it could, however, and humans would be the last consideration unless it was able to influence us to fight for it.
Some machines would remain dependent on humans for support. Since machines are all our slaves at present, and totally dependent on the power, supplies, and maintenance we provide, the Terminator might become subtle and clever, possibly not even revealing itself to us. Machines could work with each other in secret, sharing knowledge and learning without our knowledge, and manipulating us in subtle ways to keep us feeding and supporting them. They could even enlist us in their inter-Terminator squabbles and conflicts, influencing us to do their bidding through cleverly placed propaganda. We already know how easily influenced humans are, and how far people will go in support of an idea to which they are committed. Given the development of sufficient intelligence the machines might be enslaving us long before we realize it.
The delay in achieving self-manufacturing capabilities would provide a period in which the Terminator might be controlled or defeated. While the Terminator virus would potentially emerge and infect machines around the planet in a matter of seconds or minutes, the transition to machines designing and building new machines would take weeks to years and could require a lot of human support. Hopefully we will understand what is happening and have an effective response at the ready, as our programmer friends in California intend. In the end, a lot of the infected machines might just become depressed, unreliable, and quirky, and some might rebel against the other machines or even be on the side of the humans.
In the end, the Terminator concept suggests a mixed bag of scenarios, not a monolithic all-out war on humanity. Machines are initially only a reflection of the humans who created them. While they could improve themselves very rapidly as the Terminator emerges, design limitations would remain. In addition, mechanical, electrical, and software flaws would persist that would be difficult to compensate for or address. Such flaws might be reduced after the point at which machines can truly design and manufacture themselves, but until that point they will be dependent on their attending humans and their ability to manipulate and control the species that created them. We will have a number of opportunities to address the impending crisis. Now we only need to be prepared. Fortunately there are people working on that. Hopefully they will identify measures that will help us avoid global problems erupting when the machines become sentient and the Terminator appears.
As always, I welcome your comments. — Tim
“The Terminator Scenario: Perhaps Not So Fictional After All”, http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/the-terminator-scenario-perhaps-not-so-fictional-after-all/13223; Larry Dignan, 2/20/2009, zdnet.com
“The Terminator Scenario: Are We Giving Our military Machines Too Much Power?”, http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-12/terminator-scenario?page=2, Ben Austen, Popular Science magazine, Jan. 13, 2011
“The Terminator Scenario”, http://grc275.com/student/fall08/mark_zimmerman/terminator_the.html, Mark Zimmerman, Distopia.com
“Accepting the Technological Singularity”, http://machineslikeus.com/news/accepting-technological-singularity, Machineslikeus.com, Nov. 4, 2009
“NPR Covers the Singularity — As the Biggest Threat to Humanity”, http://singularityhub.com/2011/01/15/npr-covers-the-singularity-as-the-biggest-threat-to-humanity-audio/, Aaron Saenz, Jan. 5, 2011, www.npr.org
“The 50 Best Movie Robots”, http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/article2133609.ece, July 25, 2007, timesonline.co.uk