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Machines running amok is more science fiction than fact

July 29, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

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Whether it's global warming or a shortage of Mallo Cups, scientists are always worried about something, and now this -- robots might take over the world.

Well, if you're going to worry about something, worry big, I always say.

At a recent conference, specialists in artificial intelligence and robotics said there's good news and bad news.

Well, bad news and bad news, to hear them tell it. Since robots are capable of doing more and more, there will be less work for actual humans.

They say this is bad, but I fail to see the problem. Who doesn't want to get out of work? I'm praying for the day there can be a robot sitting in this chair typing, "Arrow? I didn't even see the Indian. Ha Ha."

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But the real downer, scientists say, is machines might one day be able to outsmart man. As if that's a high mountain to climb. I have two questions about this machine outsmarting man paradigm. What man and what machine?

I mean if we're talking about Jon and Kate, that feat already has been accomplished by the average Crock-Pot.

As evidence, scientists pointed to a robot that can, on its own, search out a wall socket and plug itself in to recharge.

All right, fair enough. But isn't it kind of a big step from, to use one example, plugging in a cell phone and taking over the world?

If it were that easy, we'd all be lorded over right now by a 14-year-old girl named Ashley.

And it's hard to figure that we could be ruled by something that can only go 30 minutes on a charge. Robot gets halfway through its State of the Union address and then we all have to sit around for four hours to hear how it intends to kill us all.

Anyway, I thought we got past that robot-as-a-leader phase when we failed to elect Steve Forbes. If his timing belt hadn't gone out after 70,000 miles, we might all be enjoying the flat tax today.

Scientists say they fear runaway technology, where a scientist designs a smart machine and then the smart machine designs a smarter machine and so on.

And somewhere down the line, the machine forgets to install the happy chip in the next ensuing model. That, or the technology falls into the hands of a diabolical genius -- or else that 12-year-old Russian kid who's responsible for 90 percent of the world's identity theft.

The fear is someone with a spite against all humanity, such as Dr. Evil or Sarah Palin, could program an armed drone to search out and destroy, say, all members of the mainstream media. But there is a downside to this scenario as well. Actual, productive members of society could be targeted, too, which is a disturbing thought. Unless you're like me in the sense that I have nothing that a machine would want. Some drone shows up at my place demanding axle grease, it's going to be sorely disappointed.

Nevertheless, the president of this concerned scientist association is a researcher from Microsoft, who says computer experts need to be prepared for artificial intelligence systems run amok.

And he should know what he's talking about since this sounds pretty much like the average Word document.

Which is something of a relief. What's the worst that could happen, a robot smashes down your front door and says, "It looks as if you are making a list?"

But it does get us some breathing room. Until they perfect Vista, I don't think we have to worry too much about world domination.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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