Skynet: The Fact Versus The Fiction Of An AI Controlled World
Ex-MOD explores the reality of cyber controlled future.
Author, journalist and TV personality Nick Pope worked for the Ministry of Defence for 21 years. While best-known for having run the UK government’s UFO project, he writes and broadcasts on a wide range of subjects including the unexplained, conspiracy theories, fringe science, science fiction, space, defence and intelligence.
There’s been an interesting run of robot and cyborg stories in the media in the last week or two. Firstly, Professor Stephen Hawking stated that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. Then, a few days later, the trailer for Terminator Genisys was released. Coincidence, or just clever marketing?
In another piece of synchronicity, the Ministry of Defence responded to a Freedom of Information Act request about the new combat drone, Taranis (named after the Celtic god of thunder), confirming, “both in flight and in the laboratory, automatic detection of potential targets was tested”.
The 1st December response, posted on the MoD’s website, went on to assure the anonymous requestor that “autonomous selection and/or engagement of targets were not tested, as these would contravene MOD policy”. Good to know, though the fact that the MoD’s tri-Service satellite communication system is called Skynet doesn’t bode well.
As if this wasn’t enough, news emerged last month that the UK and French governments will collaborate on a new generation of unmanned aerial combat drones that might make Taranis obsolete. The graphic used to illustrate the story on the MoD website looks like it comes straight out of the Terminator movie franchise.
So who’s going to protect us from the real-life rise of the machines? Step forward a little-known body called the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). CSER is based at the University of Cambridge, and is a multidisciplinary group of individuals – mainly scientists – whose mission, as defined on their website, is “the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction”.
While CSER mention risks such as comet/asteroid impact, nuclear war, super volcanoes and climate change, their focus is on developing technologies that might quickly (perhaps accidentally, as a result of ‘unforeseen consequences’) result in “extinction-level threats”.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), biotechnology and nanotechnology are the three areas of particular concern. A parallel worry of CSER is that at the exact time these threats are likely to become more significant, networks are becoming increasingly interconnected, which increases vulnerability.
CSER was set up with funding from Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, which arguably makes him the real-life John Connor, making a lone stand against the real-life Skynets. AI is certainly the enemy of the moment (SpaceX founder Elon Musk has called AI “our biggest existential threat”), but CSER points out that further scientific and academic study is needed to identify which ‘low probability high-impact’ concerns need to be taken seriously, and which “can safely be dismissed as science fiction” - I hope they’re not talking about the zombie apocalypse!