Button Pushers

Button Pushers

September 16, 2017 dystopia robotics 0

When the machines take over, it won’t with a bang but a whimper. Or maybe even just a glitch…

Did you ever have the feeling that every time you push a button, it pushes you back? Extrapolating from Newton’s law of “equal and opposite reaction,” we might update this to note that (1) everything you watch watches you; (2) that which liberates (or cures) can also enslave (or make ill); (3) if it’s free, the hidden costs are exorbitant. Welcome to the world of quantum networking and instant digital karma.

The advent of “fake news” as a political trope based on emerging realities shows us how easy it is to manipulate people and events if you go a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s the logic of how phishing expeditions can even ensnare seasoned observers sometimes: people mostly consume only the headlines and subject lines, and gloss over the details. This can lead to potent emotional reactions being stoked, even if the underlying reality is mostly smoke with no fire (or vice versa, as genuine crises are buried — along with any retractions — on page 29 somewhere). It’s the land of small items writ large.

And repetition. Lots of repetition. And reiteration too. Plus some extra iteration just for good measure. It’s like the directions on shampoo bottles (really? directions?): Rinse. Lather. Repeat. This is most likely how bots can tip an election, or how the news algorithms (used by self-proclaimed non-news platforms) decide which items to feature at the top of your queue and to serve up to you on a platinum platter. The logic is quite elegant, really: flood the space, whip things up, and keep doing it until split ends are gone.

Or something like that. The point is, the effect is more like “death by a thousand paper cuts” than it is a full frontal assault. In this manner, like the ‘frog in the pot of boiling water’ scenario, we can become habituated to the changes at hand to the point of being blissfully unaware that the sky is falling. Or perhaps we’re well aware, but find solace in the conveniences offered and are willing to accept the tradeoffs (what Chelsea Manning calls “the dystopia we signed up for”). The devil’s in the details, folks.

And in the microwave! And the toaster! And the car! And the dog! We’ve chipped things up all around us, without any regard for the vulnerabilities this might create and what sorts of havoc could ensue. Hackers and governments are perhaps the least of our worries in this regard, even though they can likely take the reins of just about any of the IoT (internet of things) devices increasingly in our midst. At least those folks are still people, after all — unlike the AI and bots and learning machine codes lurking within.

Humans, we have a problem. To wit, the machines may well see us as the problem. It’s not just Skynet nuking us, but more likely your oven overnuking your lasagna. Seems innocuous enough, but have you ever tried to eat seriously overcooked pasta? Yeah, so … imagine a world saturated in burnt toast, tepid coffee, driverless cars going really slow in the left lane, unlogged payments, emails rewritten in transit, power outages before saving work, thermostats messed with in the night, streaming services down…

This could get interesting fast. This is our dystopian fantasy, the one where the machines take over not through force but through incessant, interminable, indiscernible psychological manipulations. Hey, this sounds about right, doesn’t it? After all, AI knows us better than we know ourselves, and Big Data has enough info in its ambit to render a pretty accurate profile of everyone by now. And with every device collecting more data all the time, the capacity for machines to learn ever more refined ways to torment us is palpable. Our stressful lives already have us on edge, so having our buttons pushed makes sense.

Scorched toast, runny eggs, undercooked potatoes, a cup of lukewarm coffee: Breakfast of Champions!


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