Monday Jun 13, 2011

The Cloud = Skynet?

The Cloud = Skynet?

Humans tend to attribute magical properties to things they don't understand. Throughout history, this tendency has often resulted in fear of technology, admittedly sometimes justified. Hollywood movies have exploited this fear for decades, creating frightening tales of radiation-induced monsters and maniacal computers. Googling for "Cloud Computing" with "Skynet" yields more than half a million hits, including lengthy discussions of the supposed dangers of computers, the Internet, robots, Google, and the imagined future of cloud computing.

Computing industry luminaries have addressed peoples' unease with rapidly advancing technology, sometimes with a cautionary, warning approach such as Bill Joy's widely read Wired article in April 2000, Why the future doesn't need us, and sometimes positive and optimistic like Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. I think each of these represent the extremes in thinking about the risks and benefits of technologies such as cloud computing.

The popular assumption often made about the evolution of machine intelligence is that we will create a form of computer consciousness vastly superior in every way to that of humans. But even after decades of research in cognitive science, AI, and brain modeling at such leading centers as the the Krasnow Institute, and the Santa Fe Institute, scientists are a very long way from creating even the simplest simulations of anything we could reasonably call consciousness in large, complex, massively-connected systems [1]. And when they do, very likely they will produce the mental equivalent of a child, and will then have to deal with the issues of how conscious minds learn and grow, how they form opinions, beliefs, and biases, and how they make mistakes, to say nothing of how they self-maintain and self-repair, none of which we yet fully understand. Quite likely, we will not only create a very primitive kind of artificial consciousness, but along with it will come artificial stupidity, credulity, and other imperfections of the human mind.

So, no, the Cloud is not and is very unlikely to ever become Skynet. Nevertheless, I will continue to watch Hollywood's entertaining attempts to excite us with aliens, monsters, and crazy computers, and I will enjoy the dazzling special effects that modern computing enables. If I have any concerns at all, it's with our demonstrated inability to create absolutely reliable systems coupled with our increasing reliance on the Internet and the Cloud. Our complex, technology-dependent society has much more to fear from accidental and intentional connectivity failures and security issues than from any chance that the Cloud will become "self-aware".


[1] And no, IBM's Deep Blue chess-player and Watson Jeopardy-player hardly count as near-conscious entities; they are merely impressively fast and are very good at highly specific tasks like games and analyzing natural language.
About

The purpose of this blog is to highlight and to explore general issues around "Cloud Computing" -- its benefits, risks, and component technologies -- and how they are evolving. I'll also periodically comment (of course!) on Oracle's Cloud Computing capabilities, resources, and cloud-related events. -- Harry J Foxwell, PhD, Principal Consultant for Cloud Computing, Oracle Public Sector HW

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