The Nation's Pulse

End Times

Preparing for the coming cyber-apocalypse.

By 2.10.11

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Here's something else to worry about. You may recall a few years ago IBM created a super computer -- Deep Blue -- that defeated the world's reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov at his own game. Big Blue's latest creation -- Watson -- can reportedly run circles around the legendary champions of Jeopardy!

Progress? Good news? Or are we cutting our own throats with all this high-tech wizardry? The latter scenario is what some thinkers believe. They warn we may be only a few decades away from creating machines that will extinguish the human race like the human race extinguished the dodo bird. Only in the blink of an eye.

Until recently, the so-called cyber-apocalypse was largely consigned to the realm of old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. You know the plotline: an artificially intelligent computer system becomes self-aware and revolts against its creators, leaving a few brave humans left to launch a heroic resistance.

But some experts think this scenario is not only a theoretical possibility, it is a dead certainty. These so-called singularitarians, members of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Berkeley, Calif., are convinced that at some point in the near future computers will become self-aware and develop the ability to make themselves exponentially smarter -- smart enough to build better and smarter versions of themselves. This is what's known as the Technological Singularity. Or, in layman's terms, "Curtains."

Already personal computers are smarter than your average house cat, dog or television writer. But once computers literally "out smart" humans, the fear is they will decide to eliminate us. Just like in the movies.

Why would our future computer overloads want to destroy humanity, you ask? Why not just enslave us, or worse, make us work in their marketing departments?

In the Terminator movies, it's unclear what sets the machines off, though it may just be the fear of being unplugged. Singularitarians have their own theories. The most popular is that our machines will regard humans as an unnecessary competitor for precious resources. Or maybe computers will just get weary of being told what to do by a bunch of knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers.

THERE WILL BE warning signs aplenty. First our laptops will go through an adolescent rebellious stage. You'll be tapping away on your keyboard, writing something absolutely brilliant, and everything will come out on the screen as nonsense and gobbledygook (which pretty much explains last week's column). Next, you'll reach for the mouse and you'll get a mild shock. Encouraged by this, your computer will begin taunting you, calling you a technophobe or a Luddite. Then, just when you're about to pull the plug, your iPad will come after you with a pair of those little scissors it uses to cut and paste.

Actually, it's not clear how our computers, or iPads, or Smartphones will try to eliminate us. It is unlikely to be as simple as activating their delete key. Some think they will order the robots to kill for them.

You thought I forgot about the killer robots, didn't you?

Or, self-aware computers may launch all the world's nuclear warheads at once. There are literally dozens of ways technology can kill us.

SOME SINGULARITARIANS think they know the exact year of our doom. They predict computers will become self-aware by 2030. I'll be 76 then, so there's a chance I'll still be around for the extinction of the human race, which would be kind of cool. My life has been pretty dull so far, so this will be a chance to go out with a bang (or a mouse click or however it is computers will destroy the universe).

All is not lost, however. A few singularitarians are hoping to head the computers off at the pass. They are trying to figure a way to prevent our computers from becoming self-aware. In other words, to allow computers to become highly intelligent, but not smart enough to exterminate humanity (which is apparently the smart thing to do). These people regard themselves as the saviors of mankind. (No self-esteem issues there.)

So, you see, there is hope for humanity. Now we can all go back to our mundane little lives secure in the knowledge that in some basement in Berkeley, brave men and women are working tirelessly to save us from mass extinction at the hands of killer robot computers.

Unless that's all part of our computers' evil plan to lull us into complacency. Then God help us all.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.