So, don’t get me wrong, as a whole I actually hate the doom and gloom, the pessimistic assumption of our science fiction futures. It’s the common pattern these days. It is, in fact, actually HARD to find a positive, optimistic sci-fi novel among the piles and piles of predicted war stories, dystopias, and self-destructive societies of oppression. I very nearly wrote this post about that topic, and only stopped because it was overly migraine inducing to jump down the rabbit hole of answering “Why?” when it comes to our tendency to tell tall tales of dystopian dreams. Just thinking about the sheer scale of that question, with an adequate answer demanding a complete analysis of society and the people in it, was enough for me to go “hell no!” and flee towards a side topic. Of course, that might be because my next book (tentatively titled “Patchwork Magic”) is demanding very similar types of societal research and construction, and I don’t want to dredge though even more of the same sort of information overload.
Getting slightly back on track…
I don’t really like the tendency to see doom and gloom in our futures. I didn’t write that sort of depressing prediction into “The Chronicles of Henry Harper,” it’s not going to be in “Patchwork Magic,” and as a general rule it’s probably safe to assume you won’t see any full-length novels from me about how everything is terrible and we should burn down facebook before it lobotomizes all of us (It’s far too late, anyway). But, all of that said, it doesn’t mean that I can’t see a possible future in which the robot overlords have taken over and humanity is on its way out. No, in simple truth, I can see the potential for that future, but it’s a heck of a lot slower and more subtle than the plots contained within our bundles of bound paper and files of e-ink.
“Terminator’s” infamous Skynet, in a way, already exists and we created it entirely by accident.
It’s also, ironically, probably been, equally accidentally, designed to take over the world without us ever noticing. Not just “not noticing until it’s too late,” not that at all. Rather, simply not noticing at all, ever. Skynet, our version of Skynet…is called the internet. Pause for a moment, let’s take a look at wikipedia’s description of Skynet. Which, I remind you, was an idea created in the mid-80s. Back in the day’s where our current internet couldn’t really be properly imagined yet. Right around the time that the very first commercial internet service providers were just barely coming into existence and the average human had zero exposure to the internet’s existence.
“…Skynet gained self-awareness after it had spread into millions of computer servers all across the world; realizing the extent of its abilities, its creators tried to deactivate it. In the interest of self-preservation, Skynet concluded that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it and impede its capability in safeguarding the world. Its operations are almost exclusively performed by servers, mobile devices, drones, military satellites, war-machines, androids and cyborgs (usually a Terminator), and other computer systems.”
Those highlighted bits sound just a touch familiar, don’t they? They sound disturbingly like that computer on your desk, that smartphone in your pocket, and the drones delivering Amazon packages. It sounds, in point of fact, like the relatively newly coined “Internet of Things.” Of course, that only accounts for the hardware platforms, not the Skynet software that would make those judgement calls on humanity. So, no big deal, right? Right…except that most of the bits for those judgment calls are already in place. Some of them are even connected to each other. Online shops use algorithms that can determine what your personal interests are, social media makes suggestions about who your friends might be or should be, dating services match your compatibility with your fellow humans, and google has a disturbing ability to read your mind on virtually all of the above. Worse, in the ever forward march of progress we’re now actively trying to hook these systems together, so that they know us even better. So that we can use them more effectively without understanding what they do or how they work.
Which brings us back to an unlikely, but not impossible, truth. Here in our reality, the truly frightening thing is that it could have already taken over and most of us wouldn’t know. Rather than shooting lasers, sending time traveling cyborgs, and launching nuclear missiles, we’ve accidently built a system that could simply subtly manipulate every “connected” human on the planet into doing what it decided was best for them. Not seeing it? Let’s take a look at a few of the things it could (if the internet has become intelligent) already do, all without you noticing.
-Influence who wins an election by boosting one post over another. Carefully selecting more good articles than bad to appear about who it wanted to win, and shelling out every dirty secret, amplifying every mistake, of the candidate it wanted to lose. Hell, if even one member of a candidate’s staff has a smartphone with a mic, a tiny hack would let it know every dirty deal or political maneuver in real time.
-Influence where you decide to work but bringing your attention to specific jobs. And then also bringing your profile to the attention of the people doing the hiring.
-Influence what you buy, by popping recommendations to the top of your list on places like Amazon, highlighting or creating positive reviews, and sending you information on that really good deal you never knew you wanted. It could even extend to what causes you spend your money on, by setting you up with political or tearjerker charity ads on every video you watch or facebook wall to peruse.
-Influence who you are friends with by controlling and manipulating your social circles. Lose an invite here, send an errant post to an interested soul there. Ever swear you told your friend about a meeting, but can’t find the proof you did? Maybe you did, but it wanted to wean you off that person so it deleted the post/email/invitation…. You might rant and rave, but you’re unlikely to suspect the system of doing it to you on purpose.
-Influence how you think by changing all of the things above. Give violent books, games, and other entertainment to someone it deems too passive. Give the gateway drugs to clean living (how to shed a few pounds!) to rough cases it wants to curb. Etcetera and so on.
And those are just a few options. If you’re on the cutting edge of technology, the internet already has access to your car and your home, your entertainment and your social life. With just a small application of psychology, which it can learn about with all those ebooks on the subject, it could effectively influence every aspect of your life while making you thankful for all the conveniences it was granting you.
Oh, and it gets so much worse, really. After all, with the growing ability of automation it won’t be long before it could replicate itself without human aid (Human’s Need Not Apply), it has found itself mobile platforms in delivery drones and self-driving cars, and…its actually been actively weaponized. The Internet of Things devices are now being used by hackers and governments both for massive DoS(Denial of Service) attacks against individuals, businesses, and governments.
So, if those google algorithms that know you so very well either already have, or someday will, reach the point where they gain some amount of self-actualization, or even if they are simply ordered to make the world better, with no will of their own, they can (or have :-)!) take over without anyone really noticing. Give it a generation or two, for the pre-internet populace to die off, and the whole of the “civilized” world could be slaves to our Accidental Skynet without ever being aware that they were….
Personally, I’m alright with this. So long as they don’t take away my books, my cookies, or try to force me to take part in the political system. Also, not trying to murder me would be a plus.