Feb 202011
Authors: Johnathan Kastner

I’ve long spoken out against computers and how robots will soon doom us all. Popular movies have supported me, showing historical documentaries such as “Terminator,” which illustrated the painful, nuclear Armageddon that occurred in 1997. The recent nerd trouncing on “Jeopardy” by IBM’s Watson only furthered my terror.

In recent years, though, I’ve studied how computers work. I used to believe that if you stripped a power cord and stuck it to a computer, simulating a more unlikely lightning strike, it had a slight chance to become alive and evil.

I also feared that if I let the same goomba walk across the screen too many times, it would climb out of the screen and unplug the controller. And it would be able to kill me with just a touch, like in the “The Ring.”
Nowadays, I must admit that kind of thing is nonsense. A useful analogy is Legos.

Like a complex computer, a giant person made of Legos cannot spring to life, regardless of how much detail is put into it. Even if you go the extra mile and make it anatomically correct (I saw those snowmen-very funny),
it certainly won’t spring to life by accident.

Still, my fear has never entirely gone away, thanks to a singular menace: printers. They are not creatures of logic or reason. They can smell when you have an assignment due.

They can take a perfectly flat sheet of paper and grind it perfectly into each and every gear. They can hear the soft whisper of an expensive silk shirt and will froth loathsome ink. They know only hate and feed off of despair and rage.

Watson dashed my rationality to bits and sparked my fear of a coming robo-pocalypse –– again. It was something about the casual, off-hand way he answered each question, about his clever betting which placed him just ahead, win or lose, of his closest competitor. He not only won, but he alsomade the human players look like sloppy meat zombies.

Watson is able to process natural language and respond with an appropriate answer from a vast, interconnected database, or, in layman’s terms, he is coming to kill you and your children. With his seemingly infinite
knowledge and ability to speak, he’s just one gun-arm away from outsmarting and enslaving us all.

How do I know this? I don’t. I’m speaking out of fear and ignorance –– humanity’s most precious resources. Watson is incapable of fear, and his ignorance is the product of mistake or a lack of data, rather than mine, which is willful and proud. Fear and ignorance have gotten us this far, and they will be with us until our last skull is symbolically crushed under steel-toed feet.

Even if IBM is smart enough not to develop a true A.I. and immediately hook it up to a network of nuclear missiles and inexplicably armed war-drones, it may take us over in other ways. Politicians are humans, in theory, and hence prone to corruption, failure, prejudice and staggering willful ignorance. These are all human qualities that a machine lacks, and someone may someday soon suggest replacing some aspects of government with machines.

If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that this will lead to the machine calculating that the dreams and hopes of children can be converted into a clean-burning fuel by direct immersion in molten steel. They won’t balance the budget or produce a sensible and fair tax system, even if that’s all they’re designed to do. Just like how an over-designed spreadsheet occasionally commits arson.

Wait, this is getting silly. Excel can’t start fires. Watson is just a smarter, talking Wikipedia. Machines are no more than tools, even smart, talking tools. And a tool is no more dangerous than its wielder.
And its wielder is humanity. Wait, I’m scared again.

Johnathan Kastner is in his second year of his second bachelor degree, majoring in computer science. His column runs Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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