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July 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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How Close is Judgment Day? Emergent AI, The Singularity, and Harbingers of Human Extinction
by Alex Lightman

You'd think that the Department of Defense would heed the warning in the Terminator movies and try not to build anything like Skynet. But you'd be wrong…Alex Lightman reports firsthand from the AI -DOD front lines.

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Is Resistance Futile? We interview Wearable Computing Guru: Thad Starner.

Humans make their decisions emotionally and then defend them logically. Movies are our best tool for eliciting emotion, and Terminator 3 is strangely machine-like in the dispassionate way that it shows dozens of nuclear strikes on large cities. The first strike is the opening image of film. Which makes you wonder: surely, with these three movies, the U.S. Department of Defense has thought about all these things, and would use the Terminator storyline as a warning, and move in the opposite direction. If you think this, you would be half-wrong.

Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, is the champion for “Net-Centric Warfare” who is pressing hard to connect every single vehicle to a secure version of the Internet. The original conceptualization of packet switched networks was done in Santa Monica, just a block from where this is typed, and was a response to an Air Force question: How can we make our national communication systems survive a nuclear attack? The Internet itself, contrary to popular belief, was set up to all academics without security clearances to exchange microprocessor designs, not to survive a war, but the ability of the Internet to route around breaks and blockages made this an obvious benefit once it got much, much bigger.

The Dept. of Defense, primarily through DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also called ARPA from time to time) has been funding artificial intelligence for decades. I know, because I sold the very first $1 million in commercial artificial intelligence software – IntelliCorp’s KEE, the Knowledge Engineering Environment - to dozens of military contractors in ’84-’86. I even gave a simulation of something like Skynet (SCOOP – Simulation and Control through Object Oriented Programming) to General Abrahamson (whose name is derivative of Abraham, the man willing to sacrifice his son), the first commander of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. Star Wars.

UCLA Prof. Mario Gerla is currently working on “Internet-in-The-Sky”, on coordinating autonomous flying vehicles, and even uses miniature trucks and tiny helicopters with flocking behavior. I asked Prof. Gerla what he thought of the Skynet storyline, and, surprisingly, he had never heard of it. Surprising, because you’d think one of the thousands of people he teaches or lectures to would have mentioned it by 2003, but they hadn’t.

In the early ‘80s Vernor Vinge wrote the highly influential essay on the Technological Singularity. The idea is that, after a certain period of roughly annual doubling of processing power/dollar, we get emergent artificial intelligence, and we can’t predict what happens. A number of people have taken Vinge’s Singularity inspiration and written books (Ray Kurweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines is the best. See http://www.kurzweilai.net for the forthcoming The Singularity is Near.) John Smart has a number of relevant documents at http://www.accelerating.org, and I recommend that you attend his Sept. 14 conference at Stanford if you want to meet the key thinkers in this area.

Last week I chaired the North American IPv6 Global Summit. Our star attraction was John Osterholz, Director of Architecture and Interoperability, who reports to the Assistant Secretary of Defense, who reports to SecDef Donald Rumsfeld. (Link: Mr. Osterholz’s Presentation) The Pentagon, in an unprecedented move, has mandated the adoption of a new networking technology, Internet Protocol version 6. The DoD is deadly serious about this: all contracts granted after Oct. 2003 related to the Global Information Grid (basically, almost everything) must include IPv6.

IPv6 increases the address space (those numbers you occasionally see instead of, say, www.techrevu.com) by dozens of orders of magnitude (think of going to zip codes with 128 digits!), improves mobility, makes security uniform and mandatory, and has better headers (think of the labels on FedEx packages, plus warning stickers, vs. a simple post card). Most important, IPv6 returns the end-to-end quality of the Internet.

In sum, the challenge of the Terminator storyline is that virtually every development that improves our global networks also moves us (some say inevitably) towards Skynet scenario. I, for one, hope we will take the nuclear missiles off the grid. Terminator 3 is one of those movies that you’d like to say is science fiction, until you research the subject, and learn that virtually every major technology was ‘invented’ first in science fiction. Science fiction is real, and so is the world that will make something like Skynet is this very world, in this very decade. Judgment Day is near.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe