Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Perfectly safe to use

"Let me put it this way, Mr. Amor. The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error."

As it turned out by the middle of  "2010: The year we made contact", HAL9000 hadn't made an error. HAL had been told to do what he did in order to fulfil the desires of the company who built him. Everyone was told one thing but HAL was told something else. HAL was just following orders.

Who do you blame when we tell something to do a task and then are unhappy with the results? Does the error lie in the people who chose not to do the thinking? Machines and robots are fantastic tools, doing jobs that are either dangerous, boring or just plain unpleasant. Machines don't think, don't feel and they don't require coffee breaks. When we start giving machines the ability to make complicated decisions, taking human thought out of the decision loop, we are going to get into difficulties.

As a hypothetical scenario:

Mr Smith is lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to a blood pressure monitor. The monitor is set up so that if the reading falls below 100/60, an alarm will ring to summon a nurse. The nurse arrives and assesses the situation and makes the appropriate action to rectify the situation.
Now, Mr Smith is hooked up to a "Smart" blood pressure monitor that has extra features that allow the device to take corrective measures should the blood pressure get below 100/60. Someone had to program that device with a list of options to follow if the pressure dropped. The programmer has been told to make contingencies for x, y and z conditions. What happens to Mr Smith when something happens that doesn't fall into x, y and z? The device doesn't know what to do so it either does nothing or makes the wrong choice.

By removing the human element from the decision making loop, we have given up control of our lives to someone we don't know. That person may be good, may have the best intentions in mind, or maybe is just a little bit on the insane side.

Something to think about the next time you consider buying a car that will drive itself

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