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.