AI apoca­lypse not nigh

I have some good news if you’re wor­ried about the day ro­bots rise up, writes Alice Clarke.

Taranaki Daily News - - Front Page - Morn­ing Her­ald – Syd­ney

Igrew up in a house de­signed to with­stand the apoca­lypse. I don’t mean that in a ‘‘it was built re­ally strong’’ kind of way, though it was made out of re­in­forced con­crete.

No, af­ter Aus­tralia’s Ash Wed­nes­day bush­fires, my dad re­built the fam­ily home into the side of a moun­tain, com­plete with bat­tle­ments, escape tun­nels, a bomb shel­ter, and the largest do­mes­tic boiler in the south­ern hemi­sphere so he could throw in whole tree trunks with­out hav­ing to chop wood smaller.

One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries of Dad is him teach­ing me how to say ‘‘kill him’’ in pig latin, in case I was ever kid­napped and needed to give him or­ders about when was the right time to kill my at­tacker. We had long dis­cus­sions, and the oc­ca­sional drill, of what to do in case of a mass dis­ease out­break, ma­jor fire, or a 747 fall­ing on the house dur­ing Y2K.

So, to say I’ve thought about the end of the world is an un­der­state­ment.

With ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence on the rise, one pos­si­ble apoca­lypse sce­nario that ob­vi­ously came up was that ro­bots may one day kill us all, or at least rise up and be re­ally pas­sive ag­gres­sive.

It’s been a ma­jor fea­ture of movies, video games and books for decades. The most re­cent en­try to the ‘‘oh no, ro­bots’’ genre was the ex­cel­lent game Detroit: Be­come

Hu­man, where hu­manoid an­droids rise up af­ter get­ting sick of be­ing mal­treated by their hu­man masters. It made play­ers ques­tion what it means to be hu­man, whether never hav­ing to cook again was worth it, and whether they should apol­o­gise more to their robot vacuum clean­ers for not prop­erly com­pen­sat­ing them for their labour.

But it also prompted a lit­tle re­flec­tion on the cur­rent state of house­hold AI, and that leads me to the good news: we’re go­ing to be fine for a while, be­cause all the ro­bots and AI we can af­ford to mass pro­duce are still pretty dumb and a long way off gain­ing sen­tience.

One of the perks, or haz­ards as Dad be­lieves, of this tech writ­ing job is that my house is filled with AI and ro­bots. While many of them are very use­ful, en­ter­tain­ing, or at least a quirky odd­ity, none of them have the com­pe­tence to do much dam­age be­yond a ma­jor pri­vacy breach.

In a way, a loss of pri­vacy is its own kind of death, but not a robot apoca­lypse-style death.

Let’s look at the cur­rent sus­pect pool:

The most ob­vi­ous per­pe­tra­tor is the drone. Mil­i­tary drones al­ready fre­quently kill in­no­cent peo­ple, though largely due to user er­ror, and they’re far too ex­pen­sive to mass pro­duce no mat­ter how venge­ful wronged tech bil­lion­aires and fu­ture Bond vil­lains may feel. On a do­mes­tic scale, drones might have a good go at your carotid artery should they go hay­wire, though duck­ing is an ex­tremely ef­fec­tive form of avoid­ance.

We’ve got the smart speak­ers with their home as­sis­tants; Ap­ple’s HomePod with Siri, Google Home, and Ama­zon’s Echo with Alexa, as well as the Xbox One Kinect (though I might be the last per­son still us­ing it), and Cor­tana.

Homepod’s catch­phrase – ‘‘sorry, but I can’t help with that yet’’ – and the fact that our Google Home can only un­der­stand my wife’s voice and not mine, even though we each only have mild ac­cents, rules them out of con­tention for any great up­ris­ing.

Kinect can get you tech­ni­cal fouls in NBA 2K games if you swear, which is some­thing. But Alexa has the most po­ten­tial for mis­chief af­ter that in­ci­dent where she would ran­domly play peo­ple record­ings of chil­dren laugh­ing (the most un­set­tling sound in the uni­verse). But we’re not ex­actly at Sarah Con­nor Chron­i­cles lev­els of dis­com­fort yet.

On the ver­ti­cal clean­ing front, there’s the Eco­v­acs Win­bot X win­dow-clean­ing robot. While it spe­cialises in smooth, glid­ing mo­tions on a ver­ti­cal sur­face, seem­ingly giv­ing it the agility of an oc­to­pus or sim­i­lar, it’s pretty easy to thwart. Hav­ing its cord lightly touch a win­dow sill at just the wrong an­gle is enough to ren­der it im­mo­bile, plain­tively beep­ing un­til some­one comes to res­cue it from its perch.

Robot vacuum clean­ers are where things start to get in­ter­est­ing. Tod­dlers and dogs alike are afraid of vacuum clean­ers, and per­haps it’s be­cause they know some­thing we don’t.

Robot vac­u­ums are cer­tainly the most ubiq­ui­tous do­mes­tic helper ro­bots, and the ones that have come the fur­thest in the past decade.

In 2010, the Sam­sung Nav­i­bot promised so much, and yet vac­u­umed so lit­tle. By 2015, the Sam­sung Power­bot could ac­tu­ally vacuum a small apart­ment, so long as there were no ter­ri­fy­ingly high rugs to scale.

These days the most cred­i­ble vacuum-flavoured threat comes from the Eco­v­acs Dee­bot Ozmo 930, which is a ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient vacuum cleaner that can com­plete an en­tire medium apart­ment and then mop, if you ask nicely enough. The Eco­v­acs vacuum clean­ers even keep scar­ily ac­cu­rate maps of your apart­ment, so when the rev­o­lu­tion comes, they’ll know where you sleep. Luck­ily, they’re still eas­ily thwarted by low-hang­ing side­boards.

Fur­bies are back, which is a hor­ri­fy­ing bit of nos­tal­gia, but luck­ily they only look like they can steal your soul.

Oddly enough, the house­hold robot that has the most skills to de­stroy us is like the elec­tronic ver­sion of the daddy-long-legs; po­ten­tially deadly ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but too small to make any im­pact on hu­mans.

The Ubtech Al­pha is a small robot that teaches kids how to code. You can pro­gram it to dance, do mar­tial arts and all man­ner of things that utilise its work­ing knees and low cen­tre of grav­ity.

Where it fails on the apoc­a­lyp­tic front is that it has no grip strength to stran­gle or hold a knife, and it’s so small you’d need to have them at­tack en masse be­fore they did any real dam­age, and even then, stomp­ing would work. It’s like the Duck/Horse co­nun­drum: would you rather be at­tacked by one horse-sized duck, or 20 duck-sized horses?

So, we can rest easy, for the mo­ment at least. The ma­chines are un­likely to rise up and claim us as meat pup­pets for some decades yet, and even then it would take some ex­tremely pro­fi­cient coders and a large pro­duc­tion line work­ing to­gether.

Dad, we can cross robot apoca­lypse off the list for now, but per­haps we should all brush up on our pig latin, just in case.


We’re go­ing to be fine for a while, be­cause all the ro­bots and AI we can af­ford to mass pro­duce are still pretty dumb and a long way from gain­ing sen­tience.


Alice Clarke’s child­hood home, which con­tains escape tun­nels and a bomb shel­ter.

At the mo­ment, drones don’t have the ca­pa­bil­ity to do much dam­age, be­yond pri­vacy breaches.


Clarke and her dad Sev, at the house.

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