[Daniel Suarez, originally published as Leinad Zaurus, delivered a talk on the themes developed in his (originally self published) book Daemon. The book is now scheduled to be released in hard cover in January 02009 by Dutton.]
Forget about HAL-like robots enslaving humankind a few decades from now, the takeover is already underway. The agents of this unwelcome revolution aren’t strong AIs, but “bots”– autonomous programs that have insinuated themselves into the Internet and thus into every corner of our lives. Apply for a mortgage lately? A bot determined your FICA score and thus whether you got the loan. Call 411? A bot gave you the number and connected the call. Highway-bots collect your tolls, read your license plate and report you if you have an outstanding violation.
Bots are proliferating because they are so very useful. Businesses rely on them to automate essential processes, and of course bots running on zombie computers are responsible for the tsunami of spam and malware plaguing Internet users worldwide. At current growth rates, bots will be the majority users of the Net by 2010.
We are visible to bots even when we are not at our computers. Next time you are on a downtown street, contemplate the bot-controlled video cameras watching you, or the bots tracking your cellphone and sniffing at your Bluetooth-enabled gizmos. We walk through a gauntlet of bot-controlled sensors every time we step into a public space and the sensors are proliferating.
Bots are at best narrow AI, nothing that would make a cleric remotely nervous. But they would scare the hell out of epidemiologists who understand that parasites don’t need to be smart to be dangerous. Meanwhile, the Internet and the complex of processing, storage and sensors linked to it is growing exponentially, creating a vast new ecology for bots to roam in. Bots aren’t evolving on their own — yet.
Left unchecked, bots will trap the human race because the automation they enable will make it possible for a few people to run humanity while the rest of us are unable to make decisions of any consequence. Bots are thus vectors for despotism, with the potential to create a world where only a small group of people understand how society works. In the worst case, the controls over bots disappear — for example, the only person who knows the password to a corporate bot dies– and the bots become autonomous.
We are in a Darwinian struggle with narrow AI, and so far at least the bots are winning. But there is a solution: build a new Internet hard-coded with democratic values. Start with an encrypted Darknet into which only verifiably human users can enter. Create augmented reality tools to identify bots in the physical world. Enlist the aid of a few tame bots to help forge a symbiotic relationship with narrow AI. Stir in some luck, and perhaps we can avoid the fate of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who rashly enchants a broom to do his tedious chores and ends up terrorized by his imperfect creations. We had better succeed, for unlike the fable, there is no Master Sorcerer ready to return to break the spell and save us from our folly.-- by Paul Saffo