The British Aren’t Coming! Part 2

Part 2 – Our Jugular Vein

(Read Part 1- The British Aren’t Coming!)

When the iPhone was introduced, and Steve Jobs used Google Maps to look for the nearest Starbucks, call it and order for coffee, he captured our imaginations. A few years later, when Apple introduced Siri and her search/assistance capabilities, I thought of Jeeves in Iron Man (though Siri is still not as advanced as Jeeves).

With our increasing dependence on computers and the internet, the technology increasingly becomes our vulnerability. It is simply too convenient not to network our utilities (power, water, communications, etc) through the internet. In Jeremy Clarkson’s BBC documentary he demonstrates how he can kill a computer using an electronic magnetic pulse (EMP). A low-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated over a city can do the same thing.

However, I can already remember in two films, notably Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0), the Hollywood writers speculate that cyber warfare can bring our networks down through cyberattacks and computer viruses. Nuclear weapons or exotic technologies that can generate EMP’s are not necessary. They only need to create a virus, and with our interconnected, socially networked computers, everything can easily brought to its knees.

Look around you and count the blessings computers have brought us: Internet access everywhere, smartphones that are bona-fide handheld computers, people being able to bank over the internet, work over the internet, buy anything over the internet. Then imagine if one terrible day, all these gifts were taken away. We will have to go to the banks to withdraw. We will have to go to the library to find out what we need to know. We will have to go to the office to work. Worse, what if all the power went out, all the water and telephones are cut, and when we go outside our homes all the streets are choked with traffic, all the airports are closed, the government and private offices are closed and no one can figure out how much pay they should get because all the computers and the networks are dead?

In a few hours, chaos. In a few days, anarchy. In a few weeks, our veneer of genteel civilization and scientific wizardry would be stripped away. We would be savages in a year.

That’s the Die Hard  scenario. In the Terminator 4 scenario, the virus achieves sentience and starts wiping us out, or worse, enslaving us.

Ludicrous? Impossible? No, we are eagerly rushing to meet this future! The future where we will willingly hand over all tasks, all our records and our mountains of data, all the inconvenient nitty-gritty of maintaining civilization, to computers. And one day, after computers have slowly replaced our gods, they will fail us or worse, rebel against us and punish us. What should be done? How can we prevent this? Would it be possible to still use computers to do the important clerical work but not relinquish to them complete control over our lives?

Advertisements

A Belated Happy Birthday to Alan Turing

from https://i1.wp.com/www.bilerico.com/2009/09/Alan_Turing.jpg

I have been woefully remiss. Turing’s 100th Birthday came and passed last June 23 and I didn’t post a single thing in this blog named after his famous (well, I changed it a little) test for Artificial Intelligence. Exactly what did Alan Turing do?

He’s the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. In layman’s terms, he thought a computer can solve any sort of problem as long as you can break down the problem into simple step-by-step calculations called an algorithm.

He also thought of a Universal Machine (nowadays called a Universal Turing Machine) to demonstrate his idea. It was never meant to be built, but it was a ‘thought experiment’ (Albert Einstein popularized the idea of using a thought experiment if a real experiment can’t be performed), of how a computer works.

The Turing machine can be described as a simple box that can read symbols. The box is attached to an infinitely long tape with symbols. Depending on what symbols it reads, the box will move forward or backward along the tape, reading, memorizing, copying or writing on the tape.

And that’s it. From that simple idea, the whole field of computer science emerged.

His Universal Machine was the theoretical breakthrough that led to the Stored Program Computer. A Stored Program Computer is a very simple idea. Before the Stored Program Computer, computers were thought of as specialist machines. A calculator is used for calculating, right? You don’t use a calculator to take pictures. But the Stored Program Computer can change its purpose depending on the application you open. If you open your Photoshop application, you can fix photos. If you open iTunes, you listen to music. If you open Windows Media Player, you play videos. If you open Plants vs. Zombies, you play games. You don’t need to open up a computer and add parts or change the wiring . Suddenly, the computer becomes some kind of Swiss Army Knife among machines, able to do almost everything you want as long as you switch the application program to use.

All computers nowadays are Stored Program Computers, from your smart cellphones, to massively parallel supercomputers, to automated teller machines, to iPads and ebook readers. And all owe their theoretical origin from Turing’s Universal Machine.

What else did Turing do? He was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, among the mathematicians who broke the Enigma code for Hitler’s top secret radio transmissions. Their work help win World War 2.

Turing also invented the Turing Test (which, slightly modified, is the name of this blog). It’s a test to see if a computer is self-aware and sentient, in short, an artificial intelligence. Like his Universal Machine, the test is easy. Put a computer in one room, a man in another room, and an interviewer in a third room. The interviewer can read text messages from the man and the computer. If the interviewer, after a long conversation, can’t tell the difference between the two, the computer has intelligence.

Turing was gay, which was illegal in the United Kingdom at the time. To avoid jail, he accepted chemical castration (taking female hormones to reduce libido), and committed suicide two years later at 41 (though his family disputes this).

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown,  a few years short of the centenary of Turing’s birth, made an official apology on behalf of the government about “the appalling way he was treated”.

Some good Turing links if you want to know more about this man:

A website by Andrew Hodges, a biographer of Turing: http://www.turing.org.uk/turing/

The wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing

An interesting essay on artificial intelligence and how far we need to go before achieving it: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/btl/what-happened-to-turings-thinking-machines/80639?tag=mantle_skin;content