I started sketching-out this essay with the very best of intentions. The goal? To dispel the growing panic over AI: Artificial Intelligence. Robot minds and malevolent computers reaching the tipping point of singularity and superiority where they will, Swarzenegger-style, begin the systematic extermination of mankind.
The really good news is: that ain’t a gonna happen. Arnold Swarzenegger isn’t going to appear from the future with glowing red eyes and blow your head off. The Siri gal on your iPhone and iPad won’t quietly decide to do-you-in because she thinks “Maschinen über alles.”
Despite our very human propensity to anthropomorphize, even the sweet voice of Siri is merely a pre-determined computer program. To put it bluntly, Siri doesn’t hate or love you, nor does she (it) give a flying foo foo if you use her, ignore her, throw your iPad in the washing machine or even decide to destroy the planet with a homemade plutonium bomb.
At present and for a long, long forseeable future, AI contains ZERO innate emotion, ZERO passion, ZERO ego, ZERO arrogance, pride, love, hate…religious intolerance, or nationalism (each one of these being a perfect Petri dish for growing a war). What computer technicians do is cleverly program-in little cute-isms to make a device appear human, coy, sexy. No computer or PCB has an inherent ego or desire to take over the world, or seduce your mother. Period.
Having said that, do not rest easy, my friends. The path ahead remains scary and is getting scarier by the day because of…..us, the human beings steering and hacking and guiding these mindless machines.
Do not worry that your new Mercedes S-Class, with road autonomy, the ability to steer, park, accelerate, stop, and swerve, will suddenly conjure up a plan to destroy mankind. It doesn’t work that way. HOWEVER… Worry like hell about some guy in a nondescript van loaded with a powerful transmitter who decides to have a little fun with the morning traffic all going 75 bumper-to-bumper into Philly, Chicago, or New York. That is a huge and lethal problem that you will see in the very near future.
WORRY ALSO that the creators of these wünder-programs haven’t thought of everything. As recently as last week, a state-of-the-art Volvo being tested at the Volvo labs nearly killed several technicians who were observing it. Apparently, the program to avoid running over people hadn’t been switched on. Are Volvos malevolent? No. But people, being people, are sometimes stupid, or…just human. We make mistakes. In a nutshell, however, the more complicated the toys are that we create, the more mistakes we make.
You may have missed this article: In South Africa last week a military base having just installed a new and very high-tech, computer-run defense system, programmed to protect against all invaders, decided to throw the switch and see how things were unfolding. Unfortunately the mechanized anti-aircraft guns had not been final-programmed not to shoot at things below a certain altitude…as in people and buildings on base. Nine human beings died almost instantly because of that misstep in programming. Were the guns malevolent? Intelligent? No, they were not. Human error killed them. But what if it hadn’t been error, but computer hacking? Then things become instantly darker. Once again, we’re not talking AI at all, were talking HI, human intelligence…or lack thereof.
Our Military: Going HEAVY. We have, over a century and a half, made our military power VERY smart and EXTREMELY lethal. Don’t worry about a drone deciding to destroy mankind because it hates people That won’t happen. Instead, worry a whole lot about five guys in a Zodiac rubber boat, two miles off the bow of our new Zumwalt-class destroyer.
Zumwalt-Class Stealth Destroyer: It looks kinda cool in a weird, Legos kind of way. That’s because it’s stealthy. On radar it looks about the size of a small fishing boat. And, you better believe it’s bristling with the latest armament, rockets, and Phalanx-type weaponry…all computer controlled by the way. You really wouldn’t want someone to hack into this baby and set those guns and missiles firing where you didn’t want them.
On the questionable side, however, the typical crew of a modern day naval destroyer is a tad over 300. Unfortunately, they chose to cut down a bit on the number of people running the show. Computers have replaced over half the crew with an estimated 142 members aboard the Zumwalt. The obvious question, of course, is this: Could an enemy task force, or mole, conceivably hack into this 12-BILLION DOLLAR weapon of “mass defense”? Yes, they could. You can count on it. The secondary question is: what provisions are set up to handle such a situation? Uhmmm…well….
Another HUGE problem: If you’ve been reading these blogs a while, I sometimes fall back on an old idiom, “I’m not making this up.” I’m forced to use it again. One of the very serious Achilles Heels of this ship is: because of its reverse-hull stealth design, this destroyer is seriously susceptible to large waves coming in at an unfortunate angle, and sinking it. It can, and under certain circumstances, will tip over and once that happens, you’ve lost 142 souls and 12 billion dollars. A twelve billion dollar destroyer that can’t handle an errant wave?????? Does that not sound like something ripe for fixing? Maybe someone should consider welding some training wheel pontoons on the side or something…just in case. It’ll only cost another hundred million or so.
X-47-B: Today, right now, we have a completely computer-run (no people at all ) stealth bomber that can take off and land from an aircraft carrier…all by its lonesome. It’s called the X-47 B and it’s expensive. Money aside, once that pilotless bomber takes off it relies on signals to tell it what to do next. It can do a recon off the coast of Russia, OR, with a bit of clever hacking, it can circle back and auger into the same aircraft carrier that launched it. OR head toward Manhattan, Dallas, Boston, San Francisco. The only thing controlling the X-47B is whatever electronic signal dominates it. And then there’s just jamming. Very low tech, but if the bomber doesn’t know what to do next, where to fly next, we’re in trouble. Is the X-47-B capable of delivering a nuclear warhead? It is capable of carrying and delivering dozens of nuclear warheads, all without a human brain on-board to ask, “Is something going wrong here?”
F-35 Lightning II: Like every other war machine we’ve created, this one is way, way, way over budget. The Pentagon has deemed it just too big a project to scrap at this point despite huge problems. Did you know that this, our baddest, most costly flying machine of all time, really doesn’t like to guzzle anything but chilled jet fuel? Warm gas…like what is ubiquitous in the Persian Gulf makes it a bit grumpy and hard to start.
$1000,000,000,000.00 Care to guess what the F-35 program has cost you, the American consumer? It’s over a trillion dollars and it’s still buggy as hell. Think of what a trillion dollars could be used for in defense of our American cities, our American nuclear power plants, or reservoirs, our power grids, our Pentagon and The White House buildings. Now…think of whom the F-35 is designed to fight against. I have no (s’cuse my French) effing idea. It goes Mach 1.3 ( 1.3 times the speed of sound) which sounds like a lot. Believe me, it isn’t. Many of the Soviet MiG fighters beat that speed.
By Comparison, the SR-71 Blackbird which flies Mach 3 was designed in the 60s, over half a century ago by Kelly Johnson at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. It took him only 18 months and didn’t cost a trillion dollars. It didn’t cost billions of dollars either. It was in the low millions, almost one-thousandth the cost of what we’re messing with now. And Mach 3 is still the fastest interceptor speed today. How much fat can a congress press into a single war project? About a trillion. And that’s money that right this moment, we can’t afford.
The reality is we are still preparing for ultra-expensive hypothetical wars…which will never occur. We don’t need and we shouldn’t even want autonomous nuclear-equipped bombers which can be hacked by an enemy. It makes perfect sense from an enemies’ standpoint. Don’t bother spending 50 billion dollars. Just hack the weapons the U.S. has created and let us destroy ourselves.
A Chain is Only as Strong as its Weakest Link: This is an old, old idiom which I happen to use a lot. It’s strange how many young people have never heard of it and can’t seem to glean the wisdom in it. It applies to all kinds of things. I have three brand new tires on my Chevy. Of course, the fourth one is bald and and leaks air…but I’m sure I’m safe. Right now, we have sexy high-tech, mega-expensive war machines…that actually don’t work all that well. Worse than that, they’re designed to fight wars that we haven’t fought for decades. Why? $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.
America has a whole slew of weak links: Thousands of containers are off-loaded to our docks every single day. How carefully do we check them? Don’t ask. Our power grids, our reservoirs, our rail systems, our runways. One little $200 drone can take out a 747 if the operator is a terrorist…….or just STUPID. That’s a weak link. Our automobile manufacturers are setting us up with more and more autonomous vehicles. Beware. They can and they will be hacked. Another weak link. Most, if not all of these weak links can be solved with very low tech, low cost solutions. But, they aren’t cool, and don’t look good on the cover of Popular Science.
The most successful attack ever made against Americans on American soil happened during 9-11. With that attack, a handful of terrorists with no weapons at all to speak of, took over airliners, and changed the face of warfare. We still don’t have our act together, though we’re building sexier and sexier and more exciting war toys. We can’t afford em, will never use them, and hackers can successfully take them away from us and point them back at us.
Worry about AI? Great stuff for Hollywood movies. The really scary stuff is right here around us. Can you make a difference? Yes. E-mail your senator. Call your congressman. If you can’t do something that costs you nothing but two minutes of time…don’t bitch when you see what’s ahead on the Six O’clock News.
P.S. For new readers, I’m a product of the 60s, flew fighters during Vietnam and am a loyal American. That’s the very reason this article is up for you to read. God Bless America….but wake the hell up. We’re going down a very dangerous path.
P.P.S. This just came over the bow this morning: The USS Gerald R. Ford Supercarrier at a cost of 17 Billion and counting, using a host of un-tried technology. Check-out this link:
Stunning essay, Henry. Awesome. Confirms my belief that our future is in jeopardy because our electorate continues to stay uninformed. Argghh!
Thank you, Annette!
As has always been the case, votes are a lot more important than knowledge, or actually doing what needs to be done. America needs about a gallon of castor oil, and about 20 million people to roll their sleeves up. The time for bickering about religion and who does what in bed is long past.
Interesting piece, good stuff, excellent points. A couple of minor comments: You seem dismissive of the Zumwalt-class destroyer. I agree there is a problem with its hull design, aptly named Tumblehome; perhaps Turnover might be more fitting. But come on! It hasn’t shown sea-worthiness problems SO FAR, and may never have, provided it’s deployed on very large mill ponds.
Regarding the trillion dollar F-35 program: who are we to challenge the combined wisdom of the 4,235 superannuated admirals, generals and defense industry executives who came up with, and signed off on, such a deal? But there is the troubling fact that it will not be squadron-ready for another 5 years, if ever, and can then only be deployed in the shade. Meanwhile the Chinese and Russians have multiple stealth fighter programs, and the word is the whole frigging lot COMBINED haven’t cost a trillion dollars. And they all fly faster than the F-35. But who are we to carp about such tedious facts? One other fact – we owe the Chinese so much right now we could buy a couple of hundred stealth fighter from them, and it wouldn’t cause more than a hiccup on the bottom line. But they wouldn’t sell, I’m sure, because they’re better at keeping their tech stuff secret than we seem to be.
You didn’t say anything about the Osprey, the longest running weapons development in history (almost 35 years). I suppose you could say that its 60 billion or so wasn’t expensive enough to qualify for a mention, and the end product costs a mere 70 million per. (If you want a really good laugh, take a look at its “survivability in close combat”, always assuming it actually got there.)
One more thing: Having spent some of the past three years looking at network security (“for a company I cannot name”) I can tell you that’s another myth – there is nothing that can’t be hacked, given time and determination; and it’s all done by pimply youths in darkened basements, ANYWHERE on the planet. Hackability of our infrastructure, military and commercial (such as it is) is more of a threat than being shot at/bombed by Sukhois.
Tata for now
To steal a line from Hemingway’s “Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber” it’s supposed to be bad form to make your comments funnier and/or more erudite than the original writer…something which requires a bit of forgiveness on my part. I forgive you, Dick.
About the V-22 Osprey… Can’t believe I let that one slip on by. As I understand it they created a special AIR FORCE ONE version for President Obama…..but it’s so squirrely that he isn’t allowed to even get near it. Thanks for your superb comments, my friend.
Excellent…as an aero engineer and product of the 60’s, I am amazed at the costs of these weapons. I remember all the rock walls built by the WPA. Is our weapons program just another WPA?
WPA= Weapons Program???
You may be on to something. Only trouble is the WPA projects probably won’t be sailing in international waters or going up against a MiG 25.
Frankly, I guess I’m naive but I thought that the majority of the country…when it comes down to short strokes, really wants America to get back on track. I might be wrong.
I didn’t want to respond on your AI blog. I know your background and you know a small part of my Navy R/D life. AI is not new to me nor are drones or various weapon systems. Some of which I still won’t talk about but there is some awesome shit out there. I’ve dealt with NSA, CIA, DIA, and others….strange groups and strange mentalities. I am still impressed with the SR-71. 1950’s technology with capabilities that are still not equalled today even with the best aircraft. I laugh too at the unhampered results done in so short a time. I worked with guys who worked and flew in the U-2 program……awesome is an understatement.
The good ole days…Way back when, I had to brief the wing command post every morning and during the briefing we had a U-2 in trouble making an unscheduled landing at DM. With the U-2s landing with their long wings and weird landing gear, a pick-up truck (literally) had to sit at the end of the runway and as the U-2 approached, screech up to speed so they could grab the right wing of the plane to keep it from scraping. Wild stuff.