While I was working late last night, a message popped up on my computer. In an hour, I would lose control of my machine while Microsoft performed an upgrade. Or, if I chose, I could upgrade immediately. I must have hit the wrong button because the screen went black before staring up a new process. Helpless, I watched as the electronics I thought I owned were under someone else’s control, or more probably, a robot’s. The eerie experience was a lesson on the extent to which machines are taking over much of our lives, sometimes without our knowledge or consent.
As Clive Thompson writes, because machines process data in a way we can’t, we humans know little about what’s going on inside all that wiring. (“The A. I. Enigma,” by Clive Thompson, Wired, Oct. 2016, pg. 58.) Why should we care? Because machines are making decisions about us almost every day, including our credit worthiness, the status of our health, our efficiency as workers, our loyalty to our country and even our next blind date. We have no idea how the program arrives at its conclusions and no way of tweaking out the information.
This mysterious world of wires, plus bits and bytes, we owe to computer geniuses who may, unwittingly, be developing devices that stifle our freedom. Some of these capabilities are already in play, being used by repressive governments to monitor and censor our communications. (“The Digital Justice League, by Andy Greenberg, Wired, October 2016, pg.112.) In the case of censorship, the original intention was laudable. Designers wanted to prevent cyber stalking on social networks. (Blogs 12/9/14m 8/27/16) Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google, is the new cop on the beat. Designed to spot harassment and abusive language, the program works faster and is more thorough than any team of human moderators. (Ibid pg. 122.) Unfortunately, once unleashed, the program learns and augments new information, making future decisions unpredictable. In the end, we’ve no way of knowing what standards Jigsaw is creating or will create in the future. When humans get removed from the picture, machines become our masters.
No doubt, we’ve brought all this surveillance upon ourselves. The illusion of anonymity and the reach of the internet has unleashed the devil in us. Unable to police ourselves, we’ve turned our civility over to alga rhythms, relying on them to modulate our behavior rather than our character. Conscience, in the end, may become a program generated by a machine.