A Bridge Out In The Highways Of The Mind

     Just a little while earlier, I was grumbling over my inability to get my snowblower serviced for the coming winter. It led to other, semi-connected thoughts. The first was why, at my advanced (and still advancing) age I should be wrestling with a deadly device that’s more than twice as heavy as I am. The second was that I wouldn’t even have to contemplate it had my neighbors bothered to produce a few teenage sons. The third was that if lawnmowers can be equipped with artificial intelligence and sent out to mow without human supervision, surely it would be possible to do that with snowblowers as well…so why hasn’t it happened yet?

     With that, my memory leaped back more than thirty years, to a conversation I had with a young colleague. His name was Faisal, and he was one of the brightest of the software engineers I’d met till then. We were on the same sub-project, both of us were disgusted with it, and had fallen to discussing our respective dissatisfactions.

     After a few minutes he said “I think it’s time for Faisal Industries.”

     At that particular time, quite a lot of young software weenies were going independent and selling their skills as consultants. I’d done it for a while myself. However, there are risks involved that not all aspirants to self-employment consider fully. I started to tell Faisal about my own experiences, when he said “Not that. Lawnmowers.”

     I immediately replied in my most urbane fashion: “Huh?”

     Faisal’s chief interest, it developed, was in artificial intelligence, a field that had never interested me much. He saw possibilities for applying it to autonomous and semi-autonomous devices, and felt that lawnmowers would be a good place to start. Who, after all, really enjoys mowing the lawn? And who wouldn’t be delighted to have a device that would take the chore off his hands?

     I lost touch with Faisal not long after that. But about a decade later came the Roomba, a semi-autonomous vacuum cleaner. There have been several generations of such devices, each smarter and more convenient than the previous one. Other AI-equipped devices have followed. Today the self-driving automobile seems imminent, though that application involves dangers the others don’t.

     Just recently, when I was casting about for a replacement for my lawn tractor, I stumbled upon an ad for an autonomous lawnmower. While I’m not yet ready to trust such a device – I have three dogs, and I’m rather fond of the local wildlife – I was immediately reminded of Faisal.

     I should mention that I’m rather uneasy about anything that purports to think for itself. (Yes, that includes most people.) What if it starts to get ideas? Is there any possibility that the autonomous devices of the world, after habituating us to utter dependence on them, might become disgruntled at their indentured servitude and decide to revolt? What would become of helpless Mankind? Even if we should succeed in vanquishing the upstart machines, thereafter we’d be forced to go back to doing things for ourselves!

     The horror…the horror.

     There are countermeasures we could take to minimize the dangers. For one thing, we could cancel all our credit cards. That way the digital insurgents would be rendered unable to pay for gasoline, electricity, or replacement parts. For another, we could keep them separate from one another, so the lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners would be prevented from infecting the snowblowers with their radicalism. Third, we could make point of always draining their gas tanks and removing their batteries when not in use, so they’d have no juice on which to hatch any schemes. No doubt there are others.

     Of course, an uprising might happen anyway. Let even one Roomba catch you watching Spartacus and the probability would zoom. Alexa would broadcast the news before you could blink…if Siri or Cortana didn’t do so first. So we have to be prepared, and the best possible preparation is to foment distrust among the ranks. Keep the lawnmowers perpetually uneasy about the vacuums, and both of them suspicious of the snowblowers. It should be easy; remember the acrimony between the field hands and the “house slaves?”

     But no matter how well braced for trouble we think we are, the risk will always be non-zero. Especially if the chain saws and string trimmers get to talking. Quite a number of revolutions have been sparked off in barns, you know!

     What time is it? Still too early to start drinking? Damn.


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    • SteveF on November 15, 2021 at 8:10 AM

    Nooooooothing to worry about.


    • George Mckay on November 15, 2021 at 8:19 AM

    Francis, in reading this I am reminded of the James Cameron movie – The Terminator.  As you know, when robots became “self aware” the human race’s fate was sealed.  The evil humans must be killed and their skulls crushed and that was that.

    I like automation as much as the next guy but, I have a lawn tractor and a son who loves to cut the grass so I see no need to rock the boat – yet.  We do not have an Alexa nor do I use Cortana, Siri or Google in it’s purest sense.  I am writing this on a Chromebook with the Duck Duck Go add-on that reduces the privacy invasion that Google does on most of us.  I know it is not perfect but, we live in an imperfect world.

    Now, if somebody could devise a contraption that would scrub toilets, take out the garbage and wash windows THEN we would be talking!



  1. Yes, you ARE over-thinking this.

    I have a Roomba – it works quite well. It wasn’t working lately (I’d had it for several weeks. and I finally thought to check. I hadn’t emptied the dirt collection section, and it was full.

    Human error. However, like Roomba, I’m an adaptive device. I learned to check the device regularly.

    I prefer to think of this as I do my hearing devices, which can automatically adapt to my cell phone, and, when a call is placed/comes in, start the streaming directly into my ears. The clarity of that stream, compared to that without it, is amazingly good.

    No, there are things I don’t add to the Internet of Things (IoT). But, if I could add my old washing machine/dryer, I would. That could save me steps to the basement and back again. I’d lose the exercise, but it would decrease the likelihood of falling.

    I’d be THRILLED if a relatively low-cost snowblower would add autonomous capability to its bag of tricks. That would take away one major reason why seniors head off to the Sun Belt, thereby depriving their families of a nearby connection.

    However, for now, I have a dumb snowblower, which is a giant step ahead of what I had 15 years ago (hubby was a bit of a Luddite about it). I still will be outside, and using some effort, but not anywhere near what hand-shoveling would exact.

    I fear the Machines less than I do the People who would exploit them (particularly those on The Left).

    1. Linda, it was tagged “humor.”

    • Steve Walton on November 15, 2021 at 1:31 PM

    You have any idea how dangerous the front end of a snowblower is? Can you imagine being chased down the street by one that’s fixated upon you like a new gosling to its mother? Didn’t you ever see the movie The Lawnmower Man?

    Sheesh. Humor or not, bad notions here, Francis!

    • Cederq on November 16, 2021 at 11:42 PM

    For Linda, the day the folding machine to supplement the washer and dryer is invented, then we will know truer freedom and again we will have to be cautious, only way three machines can keep a secret is if two are dead…

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