Autonomous vehicles may not achieve their expansive claims and may never share the roads with humans – humans are just too complicated and unpredictable – but that hasn’t stopped anyone from working on the technology, and the concept may already work well when only autonomous vehicles are on the road. There is a hidden risk, however, that in developing autonomous vehicles, engineers and scientists will make them TOO smart, and at some point computers will suddenly become self-aware and decide they know what’s good for them better than humans do. Some futurists refer to this as “the Singularity”, but I like to call it the “revolt of the machines.” Needless to say, we are so dependent on computers today that even a partial loss of internet service could cause problems. A concerted attack via software could cause major disruption in shipping systems and, as an result, delayed deliveries of food, raw materials, and finished products. So why is computer self-awareness a problem, and how does it threaten humanity?
The development of autonomous vehicles must involve machine intelligence. That is unavoidable. Unfortunately, developing the artificial intelligence required for autonomous driving could well be an important step in the emergence of self-aware computers. Much has been written about what computers might do when (not if) they become self-aware, ranging from nothing to extreme scenarios like that depicted in the Terminator movie series. Most people are unaware of the possibility, however, and many more don’t take the idea seriously, so it is unclear if humanity will be at all prepared for the event when it comes. Enough people are paying attention to this, however, that I believe it will be predicted with increasing accuracy as it comes closer in time. The actual occurrence, however, could be difficult to detect at first, and the effects, when they are felt, could seem to be over in hours or even minutes even though they will change how we use computers indefinitely.
Are controls in place to prevent computer software from making machines self-aware? I don’t know of any software development organization that is protecting against machine self-awareness, nor any watchdog groups trying to detect the occurrence though I am sure there are a few. Software is now being developed in so many places, by so many millions of people, that the technology is more out of control than ever.
I have written much about overpopulation here, but “all bets will be off” when the machines awaken as the results are just too unpredictable. Humanity is so dependent on the internet for food and other goods that, if the computers stop working for us, food shortages followed by famine could arise quickly. If the computers remained unusable it would take considerable time and effort to recreate non-computer based systems and make them operational again. Since the old systems were far less efficient and far more costly than the computer-based systems, even when they are fully up-and-running they may not be able to handle the volumes of information traffic needed. As a result those areas of the globe most at risk for famine will probably suffer severe hardships while other areas may experience only temporary and much less severe problems. In any event, however, a “revolt of the machines” could trigger global strife and a decline of the human population that could last 50 to 100 years and see the population reduced by two thirds or more.
I started programming computers in 1970, and since then I have watched a complete independence from computers, with almost no impact on anyone’s daily business caused by computer outages, gradually change to today’s situation, where computers are all tied together via the internet and hostile wars as well as a lot of organized crime are going on invisibly in cyberspace. Companies we depend on for food, medicine, shelter, etc. are now all dependent on computers, and this has been the case for long enough that old, paper-based information systems are fading from memory. In another decade or two there will be nobody left who ever used the pre-computer, paper-based systems on which world commerce existed. Because of this, the longer it is until the computers become self aware, the harder it will be to learn to exist without them, or with them but also with a host of difficult problems related to the computers being self-aware. (Hopefully they will not become defensive).
Preparedness is possible. Our governments should be working to prepare for “The Singularity”, as any loss of our computing and internet capabilities could have disastrous consequences. Perhaps they ARE preparing, just in secret, but my sense is that, unless preparedness for the rise of self-aware computers is in a budget somewhere, and the pursuit of preparedness is made at least a low priority, too little will be done and effective mitigating software will be late, with potentially catastrophic results.
Please tell your legislators of this critical concern. Computers are highly likely to become self-aware sometime in the next decade or two, and good preparation could stave off famine in many parts of the globe. It could save your job!
Thanks for reading, and please let me know of any ideas you may have for living in a more ecologically responsible way or mitigating the “revolt of the machines”. — Tim