The robots are short-circuiting

Technology is a wonderful thing.  It has helped to make the lives of ordinary Americans more comfortable than those of kings and queens throughout most of history.  And the future promises even more a cornucopia of ever more astounding benefits.

Unless it destroys us first.  A recent traffic fatality occurred when a supposedly self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian crossing a street.  The driver relied entirely on the automobile's computer, and events unfolded too quickly to override the controls.  The lessons we should learn from that go far beyond the particulars of this case.  Society needs to keep its figurative hand on the controls, and to a large extent, we are not doing that.  Eventually, we may not be able.

Technology is like the protagonist in the literature of classical ancient Greek tragedy.  The hero has a built-in flaw, one that dooms him to failure from the beginning, no matter what.  The Greek protagonist never sees it coming, never understands what is happening, until it is too late.  Likewise with us, the modern-day techno-humans.

The recent scandal at Facebook is the portent of worse things.  Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is an accomplished entrepreneur, but even he seems to have been caught completely off guard.  Simply put, he lost control.

Facebook is frantically scrambling to lock the proverbial barn door regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  But what about Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and others?  At least at Facebook, the open door was discovered, albeit a bit late.  But your bank may already have been hacked, with no one knowing about it except the hackers – and the doors may be wide open.

Technology is complex and is becoming more so all the time.  Eventually, it will become too convoluted for anyone to control.  Not only are the computers complicated, but they have become integrated into a social fabric that is unraveling before our very eyes.  Soon, all this complexity will be in the hands of Millennials, many of whom are snowflakes.  God help us.

The most vital functions of our infrastructure are dependent on technology that no one person fully understands.  Worse yet, some of the people who understand it best are criminals and tyrants, bad actors who are indifferent about the possible downfall of civilization.  Perhaps they would even welcome it.

The heads of the National Security Agency in all likelihood know everything about you that they desire to know.  It is all but certain that some of those people cannot be trusted with that degree of power.  They have their own interests in mind, not yours, nor that of the nation.

Precisely because a computer is so complex, the smallest defect in it can cause a crash.  The slightest vulnerability can be ruinously exploited.  Every advance in computing makes it more complex and therefore more vulnerable.  Society is like that, and getting more complex by the day.

Computers run our communications systems, railways, air traffic, power grids, nuclear missile defenses, and much more.  A single catastrophe, be it natural (coronal mass ejections from the sun) or man-made (EMP devices, or even a simple sniper attack on a power substation), can cause a systemic failure that could kill tens of millions of Americans over the period of a year or less.  The worst disaster movie you ever saw would come true, and Robocop could not save you.  His circuits would already be fried.

So then what should we do?  Short of going off the grid and moving into the wilderness without the skills needed to survive there, we are stuck with trying to find and repair the many flaws in our system while at the same time anticipating and preventing future breakdowns.

This is a massive task.  It will require as much effort, money, and commitment as did the Second World War, when we knew that our existence as a free society was at stake.  In 1941, the nation acted.

Will we?

Technology is a wonderful thing.  It has helped to make the lives of ordinary Americans more comfortable than those of kings and queens throughout most of history.  And the future promises even more a cornucopia of ever more astounding benefits.

Unless it destroys us first.  A recent traffic fatality occurred when a supposedly self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian crossing a street.  The driver relied entirely on the automobile's computer, and events unfolded too quickly to override the controls.  The lessons we should learn from that go far beyond the particulars of this case.  Society needs to keep its figurative hand on the controls, and to a large extent, we are not doing that.  Eventually, we may not be able.

Technology is like the protagonist in the literature of classical ancient Greek tragedy.  The hero has a built-in flaw, one that dooms him to failure from the beginning, no matter what.  The Greek protagonist never sees it coming, never understands what is happening, until it is too late.  Likewise with us, the modern-day techno-humans.

The recent scandal at Facebook is the portent of worse things.  Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is an accomplished entrepreneur, but even he seems to have been caught completely off guard.  Simply put, he lost control.

Facebook is frantically scrambling to lock the proverbial barn door regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  But what about Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and others?  At least at Facebook, the open door was discovered, albeit a bit late.  But your bank may already have been hacked, with no one knowing about it except the hackers – and the doors may be wide open.

Technology is complex and is becoming more so all the time.  Eventually, it will become too convoluted for anyone to control.  Not only are the computers complicated, but they have become integrated into a social fabric that is unraveling before our very eyes.  Soon, all this complexity will be in the hands of Millennials, many of whom are snowflakes.  God help us.

The most vital functions of our infrastructure are dependent on technology that no one person fully understands.  Worse yet, some of the people who understand it best are criminals and tyrants, bad actors who are indifferent about the possible downfall of civilization.  Perhaps they would even welcome it.

The heads of the National Security Agency in all likelihood know everything about you that they desire to know.  It is all but certain that some of those people cannot be trusted with that degree of power.  They have their own interests in mind, not yours, nor that of the nation.

Precisely because a computer is so complex, the smallest defect in it can cause a crash.  The slightest vulnerability can be ruinously exploited.  Every advance in computing makes it more complex and therefore more vulnerable.  Society is like that, and getting more complex by the day.

Computers run our communications systems, railways, air traffic, power grids, nuclear missile defenses, and much more.  A single catastrophe, be it natural (coronal mass ejections from the sun) or man-made (EMP devices, or even a simple sniper attack on a power substation), can cause a systemic failure that could kill tens of millions of Americans over the period of a year or less.  The worst disaster movie you ever saw would come true, and Robocop could not save you.  His circuits would already be fried.

So then what should we do?  Short of going off the grid and moving into the wilderness without the skills needed to survive there, we are stuck with trying to find and repair the many flaws in our system while at the same time anticipating and preventing future breakdowns.

This is a massive task.  It will require as much effort, money, and commitment as did the Second World War, when we knew that our existence as a free society was at stake.  In 1941, the nation acted.

Will we?