The real ‘Final Frontier’

As we hurl ourselves down the technological path toward a life assisted by artificial intelligence, we need to ask some questions that have been asked for decades by science fiction writers. These are serious questions that we all should be asking and considering. Turning our lives over to intelligent machines might just have some pitfalls that we may not foresee.

The truth is that we are not living simple harmonious lives with our technology. Our lives are complex, full of anxieties and overwhelming. Technology is developing faster than we can keep up. We simply ‘attempt’ to find a way of managing. In the midst of all the technology and information clutter, we are being led into a life where very smart, artificially intelligent, machines are going to be integrated ever deeper into our lives and in very important aspects of our lives.

Fifty years ago, around 1965, likely a couple of years later, the sci-fi TV show Star Trek became popular. It was different, not like the usual spaceship from Mars or the monsters from outer space. This show had deep drama and looked at some serious questions in an entertaining way. It actually had a small budget, but I liked it. I would never have called myself a Trekie, however, I can look back and see how metaphorically, the show can teach us about some of the issues and possible circumstances we may have or be facing.

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There are many episodes I could write about. However for now, let me pick one, The Ultimate Computer, and recount what I can from mostly memory. In this particular episode, a super computer is installed on the Starship Enterprise and given full control. Most of the crew are given leave and the ship has a skeleton crew. After some simple maneuvering exercises, everyone is amazed. Another starship captain said to Kirk, “My regards to Captain Dunsail.” Nobody understands what that means. Mr. Spock explains that it is a term used among midshipmen to refer to a part which serves no purpose. The comment is meant to indicate that Captain Kirk is no longer needed. A human replaced by a machine. Several starships engage the Enterprise in some war game exercises. The computer mistakenly thinks the Enterprise is actually under attack. Kirk, realizing that something is going wrong, commands the helmsman to break-off the attack. When the helm doesn’t respond, Kirk orders manual over-ride to no avail. By now the computer has had the Enterprise destroy a cargo ship and damage a starship killing crew members. Thus they head to the room where the computer is to see how they might get it to respond. With communications cut off, they are unable to contact the other starships to explain what is happening.

Finally, it was determined that the plug should be pulled. Strangely, as I recall, it was actually plugged into the wall. A man goes to the plug and a blue beam is sent across the room by the computer across the room and the man was killed. The man who created the computer stated that the computer needed more power and the man got in the way. Kirk’s memorable reply, I think was, “How long until we all just get in the way?” Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy states that the computer inventor is unstable and becoming psychotic.

They are in a typical Star Trek pickle for which there seems to be no solution. The computer is using the Enterprise to shoot up other starships and there is no way to stop it. Once again, it takes Captain Kirk to save the day. Under the threat of an order from another captain to the other Federation vessels to destroy the Enterprise, he decides to persuade the computer to break-off the attack. He learns that the computer must protect humans. When Kirk points out that the computer is killing humans and asks what the penalty is for murder, the computer drops the shields that protects the ship from the retaliation of the other starships and turns itself off. The crew were able to take back control of the Enterprise. Kirk however orders that the shields remain down and that the ship remain dead looking. They would not defend the Enterprise and would risk being destroyed.

This episode, like most Star Trek episodes, metaphorically presents us with some important issues to consider in our current relationship with technology. We are entering the final frontier. It is not necessarily space, although that is certainly a part. The frontier we are entering is of sharing our lives with artificially intelligent machines—perhaps even becoming nearly one with our machines. Machines that have access to all the knowledge we have stored on the Internet, to information that we are willingly allowing the Internet to collect about us daily—machines that can amplify the human mind and eventually out-think humans. An important point here that will be discussed further in another article is that much of the information on the Internet is inaccurate, even false, or at the least, often noise.

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The computer in the Star Trek episode, is allowed to have full control of the ship and the lives of all those left on board. It makes a fatal mistake of mis-interpreting what are supposed to be exercises to evaluate the effectiveness of the computer. In a simulated attack situation, the computer believes it is under an actual attack. We can argue that safeguards may be developed to protect an artificially intelligent system from technical errors, from malicious attack and other possible ways it might malfunction. But, what happens when the machine simply makes a mis-judgement. We humans and our methods of communicating are complex. There are ways we understand each other through language and other means that a machine might not interpret in the same way. What if, in protecting its group of humans, it attacks another group when it perceives that the other group is hostile in some way? What happens when our computers lock-out human intervention?

The computer installed on the Enterprise is somehow based on the mind of the man who developed it. As the man exhibits unstable behaviours, so does the computer. If we do this with our machines, might we also transfer those aspects or characteristics that cause us to have discrepancies among ourselves that lead to war? If we become machines in this way, we could be no better off than we are now as flesh and blood.

We know that the Internet was invented during the Cold War of the 1960s and that one of the goals is for it to be able to survive any sort of attack, such as a nuclear holocaust. In other words, the Internet can’t be turned off or disconnected. Sound familiar? If we tell the machine, as they did in the Star Trek episode, that the situation is only an exercise, will the machine believe us? Or, might it think that our statement is dis-information and part of the attack? Any sort of ‘protect the human’ mandate could easily result in a ‘protect the human at any cost mandate.’ Does the computer protect a single human it is assigned to? A particular group? Or, will the machine have to figure out how to protect all humans at any cost? What might we have to destroy to stop a machine that is out of control?

A man trying to pull the plug, was killed. The explanation given was that he simply got in the way. Might we eventually simply get in the way of our intelligent machines? If the mandate of the machine is to protect humans, then it must protect itself above that mandate or else it would fail. How long until a machine perceives something we do as a hostile action against it? Will our machines all be linked to work together, or will we have several, or thousands, or millions of those smart machines working independently or, in some way, inter-dependently? How will they work together and not end up working against each other and against some humans? What might have happened if all the starships had the same computer testing each other?

We are on the verge of having autonomous driving cars. Should we take a look at the metaphorical story presented to us in this episode of Star Trek before we release ourselves to the fate of machines? Once we have this technology installed and are using it, if we determine that we no longer wish to use it, will we be able to disconnect it? What about other technology applications of smart artificially intelligent machines, such as information and communications?

There is another problem. Suppose we are successful in developing machines that can take over functions that humans can do? This already exists and has for decades. How many of us actually do math in our heads? Do we not turn to a calculator? How about spelling? I used to know many telephone numbers that I could recall as I would dial, almost automatically. Today, I probably only know two. In the field of education, we have a saying, “Use it or lose it.”

Imagine the Enterprise has been operated for a long period of time under the control of a machine. A situation arises where a human needs to intervene and even take over. At best, the person, the Captain, would be rusty. At worse, those fantastic skills of running a starship might even be lost. As we turn over our tasks to machines and come to rely on machine support in our lives, we find our abilities diminish and may disappear.

I suggest we cultivate and nurture the qualities that truly make us human. As the Enterprise, by Captain Kirk’s order, lies disabled, shields down, open to attack, the commander of the Federation starship war games orders that all the other ships to stand down. When questioned about his dangerous decision, Kirk replies, “I gambled on Bob Wesley’s humanity.” McCoy’s comment is poignant, that compassion is something that computers will never have. Let us consider other human qualities that a computer may never have.

This is the real ‘Final Frontier’.

Let’s think about it!

© 2014 by Bob Grahame
Please do not reproduce this article, or any part, in any manner, without my permission. Thank you!

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1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on Edhird's Blog and commented:
    I commend to you Bob Graham’s interesting reflections on Star Trek and the real final frontier. Will we ever reach a point when our computers cannot be turned off?

    Like

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