Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Module 13

            I learned a great deal from the readings and essays in this class, but I have to admit, my main takeaway was this: fear.  As I read “The World Is Flat” and the other articles, I learned that my job will very probably be outsourced to a developing country in the future.  A few decades later, it will be outsourced to a robot, and a short time after that, a robotic species will evolve and enslave/destroy the human race.  It’s pretty disheartening to think about, so I should really just focus on the present. 
I now look at the world in a different way.  I am no longer competing just with those in my college classes.  I am competing with those on the other side of the world as well.  This flattening of the world will increase competitiveness globally, and I feel like I have to work my heart out just to achieve middle-class status. 
Another huge takeaway I had was that the title ‘science-fiction’ would more appropriately be titled ‘temporarily-science-fiction.’  After the readings in this class, all of the things I had seen in movies that I thought were impossible no longer seem unattainable.  Even if I take the most ridiculously-futuristic movie that I can think of, probably The Matrix, I can’t think of anything in it that couldn’t be achieved.  In the article ‘Why the future doesn’t need us,’ Bill Joy specifically talked about a fusion of robotics and humans.  That’s almost exactly what The Matrix is about – people being coupled with robotics to sustain them.  On a different note, even a movie that has little to do with technology, like a zombie movie, is possible through technology.  For example, through the use of nanotechnology and genetic engineering, a ‘zombie’ could theoretically be created and an infection could spiral out of control.  Before this semester, if you would’ve told me that a zombie outbreak will be possible in the future, I would have called you an idiot, but now, I can see it being a real possibility one day.  Bill Joy even mentions that a vampire could be created through nanotechnology.  This absolutely blew my mind.  If the wrong person got a hold of this type of technology, the world could practically end, which brings me back to my main takeaway.
In my opinion, ‘The World is Flat’ was a very effective book for this course.  Again, it gave me reason to fear, but I guess a nice dose of reality is a good thing.  I really think that everyone should take this class – or at the very least, read this book – so that they can see where the world is headed.  People need to recognize what skills will be employable and what skills won’t be employable.  I think it’s somewhat sad that people get degrees in obscure subjects, and then get frustrated when they can’t find a job.  People need to realize that the world is changing, and that certain skillsets, unfortunately, will not be employable in the future (at least not in our country). 
“A Logic Named Joe” was a very entertaining break from reading constantly material of a serious nature.  I am still blown away with how prophetic that story has proven to be.  Since people of the 1940s probably considered that story to be ‘science fiction,’ it helped reinforce the idea that what we currently think is impossible will one day be possible.  When I read science fiction from now on, I will have an entirely different perspective.
I think the final article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Us” was the perfect way to end the readings.  It was probably one of the most insightful articles I have ever read.  Since we spent the majority of the course reading “The World is Flat,” which talked about where the world is going, it was really effective to finish with an article about where the world will be going if this ‘flattening’ path continues indefinitely.  Maybe one day a robot will write an e-book called ‘The World is Flatter than Flat: A World without Humans.’

Module 12

            As I read this, I couldn’t help but laugh because my 11th module was about the movie iRobot, which addresses these same things.  I could basically copy and paste that module here.  It addresses the potential problems of having highly-intelligent robots in our society.  I felt like I was watching that movie again as I read this article. 
GNR is an acronym for genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.  Genetics refers to altering genetics so that the entire physical world can be redesigned.  What was once the evolutionary process of nature will now become a power in the hands of men and machines.  This could, in theory, be a wonderful thing, but the potential for harm is extraordinary.
Nanotechnology is technology dealing with the manipulation of atoms and molecules.  Like genetics, this technology has so much potential for good.  It will allow us to build basically anything at a very small cost, and it will solve all our physical problems.  On the other hand, the potential for destruction is also great.  Our entire biosphere could be destroyed by nanotechnology.
Robotics refers to a number of things, but the most interesting of them is that through robotics, we can achieve near-immortality.  It’s amazing to think that through robotics, we can become a hybrid robot/biological species.  But I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising, since we are already seeing this today.  Mechanical devices that provide life-sustaining activities are implanted into people daily.  Again, there are many positive consequences, but the possibility of danger (creating a robotic species that will overpower us) is undeniable.
My reaction to Joy’s fears is total and complete agreement.  The most profound line in this article, in my opinion, is “These technologies are too powerful to be shielded against in the time frame of interest.”  This is so true!  We can’t wait until there is a robotic race that threatens our entire existence before we start thinking of solutions.  We have to start taking preventative actions now.  If we don’t, it will be too late.  This isn’t a movie.  This is our real world, and Will Smith isn’t going to swoop down and save us in the last hour like he did in iRobot (I hate to keep using iRobot references, but it is a perfect comparison to what could happen)!
            This needs to be stopped soon.  The potential risks far outweigh the potential benefits.  If a manmade robotic race takes over the world, humankind will, at best, become an enslaved species, subject to the mercy of the robotic creatures.  But this won’t be the type of slavery where revolution is possible.  It will be a permanent state with no escape. 
I’m not sure, now that I think about it, that anything can be done to stop this progression of technology.  Like the story mentioned, this isn’t like a weapon of mass destruction, where access to materials and information is limited and protected.  A small group, or even an individual person, can unleash knowledge-enabled mass destruction.   Another reason it is unstoppable is that our government doesn’t really take preventative action.  They always wait until there is a major crisis before they make major decisions.  Trying to get the government to stop artificial intelligence from progressing is futile.  It would be political suicide for a politician to propose that the advancement of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics be stopped.  Think about it.  All that someone would have to do is say “My mother has cancer, and you want scientists to stop exploring possible cures?  You’re a murderer!”  It’s politically untouchable.  As a result, we will just have to sit back and observe our decline into self-destruction.  Maybe robots will one day read Joy’s article in a human-absent world and think, “Too bad they didn’t listen to this guy.  If they did, they would still be alive.”

Module 11

            Whenever I read about the future of computers, I think about the movie iRobot, which takes place in the highly-computerized future.  In this future, robots, which are designed to resemble humans, are as widespread as people.  They assist people in daily tasks and, now that I think about it, they basically do all of the work that people don’t want to do – the movie shows robots as garbage-removers, mail-deliverers, etc.  All of the robots are created by a single company, United States Robotics (USR), and they function through a highly-complex artificial-intelligence operating system and are capable of human-like behavior and reasoning.  They are wirelessly connected to, and receive updates from, a centralized computer system called VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence), which is itself artificial intelligence capable of advanced reasoning.  All of the computers/robots – including VIKI – are governed by three laws: (1) A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human, except where such orders would conflict with the first law; (3) A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection doesn’t conflict with the first two laws. 
In this futuristic setting, VIKI’s network pervades practically everything – every robot, every car, every building, every piece of machinery, every electronic device, etc.  Because she (VIKI is labeled to be a female) is capable of human-like reasoning, she evolves to the belief that humans are parasites to their environment and, therefore, must be contained.
The reason I find this movie fascinating is that it is so possible.  The VIKI network is very similar to the internet, which, like VIKI, is capable of being accessed anywhere and is capable of pervading anything that is internet-compatible.  The main difference is that VIKI is completely intelligent, whereas the internet is not (although more and more websites – Google, Amazon, etc. – are starting to use artificial intelligence in many ways).  Another way it is realistic is that robots and artificial intelligence are certainly part of the future.
This computerized future comes at a price – both in the movie, and in our world today.  As computers become more and more pervasive, people become more and more dependent upon them.  As people become more and more dependent upon them, computer systems gain power over our lives.  Just think back to how many people freaked out when Wikipedia shut down for a day.  It sounds ridiculous, but those who control computers have huge amounts of power, and it will only become more and more obvious as time passes.  iRobot expresses this point beautifully.  Since VIKI has pervaded everything, as soon as she comes to the realization that humans are parasites, she begins to suppress people, who can do nothing to stop her (except Will Smith, of course).
Another social issue that arises in this computerized future is the pointlessness of human life.  People don’t work, and they are not obligated to do anything because robots do it all for them.  I would not want to live in such a world.  If a person aspires to be a carpenter, or a painter, or a doctor, or a mechanic, they cannot, because robots can do everything better and faster than humans can.  Humans actually do become parasites, incapable of producing anything.  They just live their pointless lives out in their apartments.  This is horrible, because human beings are hard-wired to create and produce.  The most satisfaction I’ve had in my entire life has come from working my butt off to achieve something great.  In the computerized future, no one will be able to achieve this satisfaction because there will be no motivation for them to do so.  Computers will be able to do everything better.  I have to admit, I don’t want to live in this seemingly-inevitable future.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Module 10

Although the southern-accent style of writing took some getting used to, this short story contained some truly-prophetic ideas.  The narrator’s initial description of ‘logics’ matches a description of computers and the internet to a T.  He said that in order to view what SNAFU (a TV station in the story) is telecasting, you punch ‘station SNAFU’ into the logic, and it will pop up on your screen.  When I read this, I was immediately reminded of something I did a few days ago.  I got on a computer, typed in the address bar, and watched several episodes of an NBC show that I like.  Today’s technology is basically identical to what was described in this 1948 story!  When he said that entering ‘Sally Hancock’s Phone’ would hook you up with the ‘logic’ in her house, I was immediately reminded of Skype.  He goes on to mention that you could search for who won today’s race, the weather forecast, or other news events, and they would appear on the screen as well.  Does this sound like to anyone else but me?  All of these aspects of the story are spot-on in terms of modern technology. 
                Equally amazing is that the narrator describes the internet network almost perfectly.  He says that all of the information (facts and recorded telecasts) is stored in ‘tanks,’ and all of the tanks in the country are hooked up to each other.  If you want to see or hear something, you just search for it, and you get it.  This is pretty much what modern internet servers do – when you search for something over the internet, the request goes to an internet server, which provides information back to your computer.  I am beyond belief that this story was written in 1946!  It’s almost too accurate – to the point of suspicion. 
                One interesting thing that I wanted to point out is that, in the story, everyone is aware that ‘logics’ haven’t reached their full potential and that they can do a lot of things that haven’t been discovered yet.  This is interesting because in every other science fiction story that I’ve read/watched, technology has pretty much reached its full potential within the story.  For example, in Star Wars, although there are six movies, nothing really changes – in terms of technology – throughout them (if anything, technology is better in the first three episodes than in four, five, or six).  It seems as if technology has reached its full potential and has stopped.  Yet in this story, it is left open that ‘logics’ can accomplish much more than is known.  This caught my attention because that’s the world we live in today.  There is no known limit to what computers can do.  They’ve existed less than a century, and already they provide countless benefits.  But what will it be like in a few hundred years?
                To continue with the story, I laughed when I read the part where the maintenance guy activates the logic, and the screen pops up and says “Announcing new and improved logics service!”  The reason I laughed is that I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen something similar pop up onto my computer screen after a software update.  I am blown away that the story is so detailed that it includes ‘updates!’
                On the other hand, there are some things about this story that aren’t accurate today.  Computers are very precise machines, and, as far as I know, artificial intelligence has to be carefully programmed.  It doesn’t just happen accidentally.  The ‘logic’ that just happened to have a mind of its own doesn’t really make sense.  Also, computers don’t currently know everything.  They only know what they are programmed to know, which is limited to what man has discovered.  However, I am hesitant to say that this wasn’t prophetic, because maybe it just isn’t prophetic yet.  Computers are still relatively young.  Maybe one day computers will know everything about everything.  Then, people will be amazed at this story even more than I am (which is a lot).
Going back to correctness, another accurate part of the story was the fact that computers lack judgment and common sense.  The logics couldn’t differentiate between a good question and a bad question, so they just answered everything.  This is similar to modern-day expert systems, which, for example, allowed fighter jets, before they were re-programmed, to drop bombs while the aircraft was upside down.  It lacked common sense and judgment.  This is yet-another incredibly accurate aspect of this story. 
Overall, this story was astounding in terms of how prophetic it has proven to be.  I’m sure that the author had no idea this technology would materialize in the future.  It was probably just some creative fantasy that he thought would make an interesting story.  It leads me to wonder what other “science-fiction” stories will be possible one day.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Module 9

            To start, I want to say that Friedman makes a great point about Muslim radicals.  I have often wondered what the mentality of an Islamic extremist was.  I can’t comprehend how someone can commit suicide in an act to try to kill others, and actually believe they’re doing the right thing.  I think that Friedman nails it when he says that they are willing to do these things because they don’t want to be wrong.  When they see how powerful America has become, it shames them.  They see that our “openness” and individual freedoms have created a society of great wealth and success, and it enrages them because they want an entire world where Sharia Law rules.  I thought this was an interesting thought of Friedman’s.
            The process of a Dell Laptop being built is incredible.  When the order for a laptop is placed over the phone, the signal is immediately sent to parts suppliers, who ship the parts as soon as they can.  This type of processing is called just-in-time processing.  As an accounting major, I am very familiar with just-in-time processing and the benefits therein.  I mentioned in module three that storing large amounts of inventory can cause the financial ruin of a company in today’s competitive business environment.  The reason for this is that storing inventory costs money – a lot of money, and money spent amassing inventory is money wasted.  Obviously, Dell knows this.  The interesting thing, though, is that Dell’s parts suppliers are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Dell’s demands, most likely taking the burden of storing inventory upon themselves.  When I first learned about just-in-time processing, I wondered why this was the case, but then I realized that the parts suppliers did this because, as the book states, Dell sells between 140,000 and 150,000 computers every day.  Parts suppliers will do whatever they have to do to keep their contracts with giant corporations like Dell.  I have actually heard of other situations (Xerox is one example, if I remember correctly) where parts suppliers have built factories right next to their buyers in order to keep them happy.  But I digress.  Continuing on with the process, when parts suppliers ship the parts to Dell, they are received, and a Dell team member assembles the laptop by hand.  Software is downloaded onto the computer, which is then shipped to its destination.  All of this can happen in a matter of hours, and it can arrive at its destination in a matter of days. 
            It is scary to think that Al-Qaeda has a supply chain network as powerful as Dell’s.  I have never really thought about it, but it makes sense that Al-Qaeda would take advantage of the flattening world to reap havoc on it.  Friedman made a great point about that video of the reporter’s beheading going viral online.  Not only can Al-Qaeda now create more chaos through the flattening world, but it can also instill terror much more easily.  Just from Al-Qaeda putting a single video online, untold numbers of individuals are being terrorized across the world.
            From what I could surmise, the curse of oil refers to nations with huge amounts of oil deposits.  Because they have large amounts of oil, their dictators don’t need to tax the people, and therefore don’t need to listen to the people’s wants or explain anything to them.  They spend the oil-money on pointless subsidies rather than investing in the people, and the nations don’t thrive.  Those nations that are growing in the Middle East tend to be nations without oil.  I found this very interesting because oil is basically a drug that the world can’t do without, and you would think that these oil-abundant countries would be able to amass enough wealth to rival the United States.  I think that Friedman makes a solid point when he talks about the reason for this.  When your country is that rich in black gold, the only thing you focus on is drilling holes in the ground in an effort to find more of it.  Ingenuity and creativity are hampered, because the best way to make money is through oil.