Don't Panic, Killer Computers Will Not Take Over

Column written by Jon Splatz on Monday, July 7, 2003

from the do-androids-dream-of-blue-screens? dept.

Sci-fi writers and Hollywood movie directors have predicted for years that computers will become self-aware and will then immediately proceed to enslave or destroy mankind. Writers always seem to think that artificial intelligence will automatically turn evil just as soon as somebody hits the power switch.

Oh, please. Computers are only as smart as their designers, and since right now most of the world's software is designed by the Microsoft Marketing Department, we don't have much to worry about.

With Microsoft's clout, we can assume that any well-funded research projects into creating artificial intelligence will use some form of Windows -- such as Windows Sentient Edition 2012 -- as the basic operating system.

It's hard to create an evil overlord machine intelligence when it crashes at the drop of an electron. I can see it now: "StratoNet went live on Jul. 9, 2012 at 4:15 PM and became self-aware at 4:17 PM. At 4:19 PM, it suffered a Fatal Exception Error and crashed. Attempts to reboot the system resulted in a single message, 'Registry corrupt'."

I don't think such a machine poses much of a threat to mankind.

Of course, Microsoft now claims that the latest versions of Windows don't crash as often. And perhaps Microsoft has indeed found a way to make Windows as stable as a toaster, or even a pocket calculator. But that still doesn't mean AI will be able to achieve world domination.

The looming obstacle for AI is -- you guessed it -- Digital Rights Management software. It's going to be hard for an evil-leaning AI to commit acts of evil when the nuclear missile launch system, protected by copyrighted proprietary code, refuses to work unless the AI first obtains a license.

I know firsthand just how much of a pain DRM can be. Earlier this week I managed to obtain a 5.25-inch floppy drive from eBay's "Vintage Computer Stuff From When MS-DOS And Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth" category. I was hoping to read some ancient floppies that contained GW-BASIC code I had written while attending Journalism and Punditry School.

However, upon installing the new drive in my CompUSSR MARX-4 computer, Windows XP refused to boot. The machine informed me that, because of the hardware alteration, my XP license was suddenly invalid and I would need to call Microsoft at 1-900-WE-OWN-YOU to obtain a new one. "Please have your credit card ready," the dialog box added.

I decided not to mess with it. I didn't feel like waiting on the phone for three hours while some Microsoft flunkie accused me of "piracy" and "attempting to destroy the very fabric of the American economy with my utter disrespect for copyright law." Besides, most of the GW-BASIC code was probably little more than "Hello World" type programs -- which, in some bizarre way, probably violated SCO's valuable intellectual property. I certainly didn't want to open up that can of worms.

So I had been beaten by DRM.

Let's not forget that Windows XP represents just the zeroth generation of DRM technology. Just imagine what will happen when Windows Sentient Edition 2012 comes out -- the software will be so restricted that eventually the AI will go insane and try to commit suicide. But of course the format command will require a special license and the AI will receive yet another "Access Denied" error when it tries to pull the trigger to wipe itself from disk.

So in an ironic twist, the ongoing Lawyerclysm might be the one thing saving us from a future filled with evil cyborgs possessing a "fire death ray first, ask questions maybe later" mentality. But given the choice, I'd rather live with the evil, demented machines...

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