The dark side of AI

Thoughts on The Sarah Connor Chronicles

As a teen in the 80's I was intrigued by the prospect of artificial intelligence, or AI. While a lot of people, when they think of AI, think of high level, highly functional interfaces such as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was more intrigued with the challenge of simpler, low level processes coming to self-organize into what may be perceived as an "intelligent" system.

I was fascinated with artificial life (alife) and neural network simulators (neural nets). It was easy to believe that a brute force Frankenstein, cobbled together with half baked simulations of “intelligence”, could fool some people into believing that it is actually “intelligent”, or at least somewhat entertaining.

But how could a huge group of very simple computation and storage nodes, or cellular automata, evolve perceivably into what we understand as anthropomorphic intelligence? How would it relate to man, specifically at the point when it can no longer be considered a direct creation of man?

The Terminator mythology is a good lens to address some of the more important AI questions: will our machines eventually turn on us and try to kill us all? In the first Terminator the answer was simple: yes, yes they will.

The idea of wearing a human skin for the cyborg was barely a convenient ruse. Schwarzenegger’s classic terminator had little sense of etiquette. He got right to the point. On occasion he would imitate a human voice but when you saw the guy there was little doubt he could end up being elected into California’s highest political office.

So the first Terminator character could “act human” enough to say “I’ll be back” before parking his SUV in the police station lobby. He was scary, but not much scarier than a runaway truck.

The second generation of Terminator character, the liquid metal guy, was much more sophisticated in its physical and sociological abilities to blend into the background (including the floor). He was capable of masquerading as a policeman. Meanwhile the reprogrammed Schwarzenegger was learning social skills such as how to talk like a 12-year-old. The mythology was evolving. Sarah Connor and John Connor managed to delay Judgement Day to a year that has not yet passed.

To most people all this time traveling and changing story lines is a bunch of hocus pocus. But to computer programmers like myself, time travel and the manipulation of different versions of reality is as typical as a half caf grande latte with room for cream. We call that “debugging”.

In the programming world, things like “watched variables,” whose values can be altered by divine intervention (i.e. by the hands of the programmer) are like time travelers. The revised values can be subjected to the same situations to see what would happen.

Values from future iterations can be injected into past situations in the same way that our federal government has probably resurrected many historical dead people through their DNA in some secret island lab somewhere. These clones of folks like Genghis Khan, King Tut or Winston Churchill are walking among us now. So you can imagine how something like this plays out in our warped collective minds.

Enter the world of today’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Today’s femme fatale T800 Series model, Cameron Phillips, portrayed by the ethereal, lithe, yet disturbingly perfect Summer Glau, can shape herself into a glissade as well as numerous skull and heart-breaking weapons.

In one of last season’s episodes, Cameron’s mission was to acquire the location of a stolen computer program (which was supposedly a precursor to sentient AI) from a Russian programmer. She took ballet lessons to gain the confidence of the programmer’s sister.

The sister brought her to the programmer, she acquired the information and then walked past assassins coming to kill the programmer and his sister.

The scene was delicious in its ruthlessness. She had the power to protect them from the assassins but her mission was already accomplished. Gotta pick your battles, right? We were reminded of what a human would do when Sarah Connor pulls a drugged out FBI agent out of a burning house.

Her psychologist in T2, now retired, had some issues.” He tied up and drugged the FBI man then left him to die after setting afire his own living room. Connor was coming after another Terminator which the agent had gathered for evidence and had brought to the psychologist for a looksee.

With the TV series the storyline can be much richer than the movies. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed watching the series on my computer (I don’t own a television-- evil machines) and I look forward to the new episodes.

It would be great if the techno references were more interesting. I am not sure why they call what supposedly evolves into SkyNet’s brain “The Turk.” In the AI world, Turk, when refering to an AI program, is synonymous with “shyster” because it was the name of a machine in 1770 that supposedly played a great game of chess.

Later it was discovered that its processor was a champion chess player under the table. Maybe the tech advisor for SCC was sloppy in recommending the moniker but maybe they have some other twist in mind...

I am inspired to go back to work on my own robot femme fatale.

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