City of Paradigm: A game of drones and autonomous machines
Below is an excerpt from Kyt Dotson’s novel City of Paradigm, a science fiction tale about a fictional 21st century city situated somewhere in California. Each City of Paradigm column is two parts: an excerpt from the novel and an editorial describing the real-world context of the technologies described in the story. Readers may find more City of Paradigm here on SiliconANGLE.
Steven Wolfe glared at the man across his desk through his data glasses. Adding a giant red ‘X’ across the man’s face had done well for his mood, but it didn’t help his professional duty to his office—so Wolfe idly waved the holographic “NO” (that only he could see) away with a gesture he hoped looked as dismissive as it felt.
“The mayor has been adamant that I need your go-ahead before we test any sort of project with military applications in the city, Mr. Wolfe,” the man said—his name was North Campbell, which sounded to Wolfe more like the name of a town than a person.
He had been putting calls into the Office of Big Data and Urban Information Analysis for weeks about his pet project. Better said, his company’s pet project. And Wolfe just could not duck him any more. Of course, the man did manage to get lucky today and found him in the office, a rare thing already, and Wolfe didn’t feel rude enough to turn the man way.
“Look, Campbell,” Wolfe said. “The City of Paradigm already has contracts with Allied Signal, General Dynamics, and even Boston Dynamics, we do not really need another defense contractor in our midst—“
“If you would only look at my proposal, I think—“
The intercom squawked and Wolfe help up his hand, an image of his right-hand-man and media manager, Henry Combe, appeared in his data glasses.
“There’s been another incident, sir,” Combe said, his voice emanating from the intercom. “Graffiti vandalism again. A drone is involved. You’re needed immediately on the scene. It’s not very far away, a car has already been called.”
“Thank you, Henry,” Wolfe said and turned to the man across the table. “I have to go deal with something…”
“A drone?” Campbell said, standing more quickly than Wolfe could rise. “As the mayor probably briefed you, drones are my specialty and they’re the topic of my proposal. I could come along.”
Wolfe bunched his eyebrows as he pulled his coat on—the forecast in his weather app suggested high winds—and bit back a reply. Surely, if the mayor sent this man to him she meant him to listen to the proposal. At the same time Wolfe could not shake the feeling that she just wanted someone else to tell him to go away.
“Fine,” Wolfe said. “Just stay out of the way.”
* * *
Wolfe quickly wished he had left the man at the office because Campbell did not stop speaking from the moment they left the room to the moment they arrived on scene.
“The police protection drones, in whatever number you need—I’d say six hundred for a city this size—would be provided free of charge by Cyberview,” Campbell said. “You will also have access to our AI cloud and all of its resources, including the code. I understand you’re an AI engineer yourself, Mr. Wolfe, so I’m sure you could appreciate how useful that is. Of course, the drones will not be armed, as per your city regulations.”
Nothing autonomous in the City of Paradigm was permitted to be armed, by law. A law that Wolfe himself had championed before he was promoted to his current office. Only a human got to choose to pull a trigger, be it a firearm or a Taser. At worst, some drones were armed with were arc-welders, and for safety reasons those could only deploy after a drone had solidly affixed itself to a surface.
Campbell continued on about the security, capability, efficiency, and reliability of Cyberview drones and why the City of Paradigm police force should field them. He quoted metrics, reports, savings in other cities (such as Chicago and Boston) and even went on about how it added technician jobs instead of taking away police positions.
Wolfe kept his responses to “I’m listening” grunts and tried not to argue. The city’s current drones worked just fine for the purpose they’d been deployed, crime was low, coverage was high, and the City of Paradigm police did not face the same problems as those in Chicago, Boston, or New York.
He welcomed the respite from Campbell’s voice when the town car came to a stop and Combe appeared to escort him into a shaded, industrial area. Gravel crunched under Wolfe’s business shoes when he took a few steps. All he could see initially was sheets of concrete wall, rust-orange painted metal struts, and patches of blue sky intersected with the silvery-sleek edges of glass skyscrapers.
The graffiti, if it could be described as that, proved interesting.
Whoever the artist was chose a location that almost nobody would see, except perhaps passing welder drones, as it was along a section of a bracing strut that faced several sections of concrete wall. The image, scorched into the iron metal of the strut, looked vaguely like an impressionist painting of some sort of dog. A long face, with a rounded snout, and huge eyes gazing out. One of the eyes centered on a heavy-duty bolt that had been welded into the strut.
“It’s a dog,” Wolfe said.
This was the fifth such “graffiti” in the past two months. At first, it had not even come to Wolfe’s attention—except for its novelty. The images generally appeared in poorly trafficked spaces, the first few were crude, vector-lines scraped into the wall that resolved into abstractions of a cityscape, a tree, and a cloudy sky. Interestingly, the view of the cityscape had been found by one of Wolfe’s colleagues using an image matching algorithm to one of the city’s cameras.
This one showed a progressive increase in artistic talent—and it also meant the frequency of their appearance was increasing.
“The technicians say the vandalism was done with a welding torch.” Combe handed Wolfe a tablet. “In fact. We think welding drones were involved.”
“A drone did this?”
Combe shook his head. “Drones. Plural, sir. Footage from this area shows multiple welding drones passing through here and delaying approximately three to four minutes. It’s outside the view of normal cameras so we don’t know what they were doing. This seems to be it. We’re reviewing footage of previous sites for similar activity.”
“If you grant my proposal for Cyberview,” Campbell cut in. “I can promise that our police support drones would not be prone to being hacked in this fashion. Also, as a separate system, you would receive added security.”
The look of the image and the connection to drones made Wolfe wonder if it was actually part of the autonomous behavior algorithm and not a hack. A fanciful thought, and also not the most likely answer. He thought for a moment. Perhaps Campbell was a blessing in disguise. If they drones were being hacked, it would be easy to discover—but if this was actually an emergent behavior of the drones (he’d call it a bug to his superiors) then Campbell discovering it would give credibility to the find.
“These drones are autonomous repair drones,” Wolfe said to Campbell. “They’re all linked to each other and to the city. Yet this still happens. Hacker or bug, we’ll find it. If you think you can help, though, I might consider your proposal if you can show your system can solve this.”
He looked at the image again. “And find me that dog.”
— Excerpt from The City of Paradigm, novel by Kyt Dotson, © 2015
Open letter from leading AI scientists: No autonomous weapons
Machine intelligence, smart agents, and autonomous machines all promise technologies that produce thinking machines and are procured from the fruits and foundation of research into artificial intelligence (or AI). In the City of Paradigm excerpt, a company man wants to get his business into the city so that he can help deploy drones to assist the police—he even helpfully suggests that the drones need not be armed.
Thinking machines armed with weaponry has long been a staple go-to of science fiction to outline the potential pitfalls of such a policy. In this era, one need only binge watch the entire Terminator movie series to see what movie-makers think could go wrong.
Steven Wolfe is not alone in thinking that when it comes to pulling the trigger on a weapon, an autonomous algorithm should not be making the decision.
In late January, numerous signatories—including super-scientist Stephen Hawking, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak—released an open letter to the world’s militaries arguing against autonomous robotics in weaponry.
”Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention,” the letter begins. It also argues that AI weaponry may be feasible within years, not decades, which could be the inspiration for yet another summer lineup of AIs-kill-the-world movies.
The military in particular is a space that robotics has many applications and computer aided mechanization has made it a lot easier to field high-technology. Boston Dynamics has been working for years on BigDog, a pack robot for military applications (moving stuff, not shooting people) and this year showed off a smaller version.
It doesn’t take a head for science fiction to see how useful it might be to have a piece of equipment that can roll out onto a battlefield and act without human intervention. Robots supply the platform for delivering weapons to battlefields, also not being a person, if a robot is “killed” it’s only a loss of money, not a human life. So the temptation to use AI to instill a “reasoning” capability into a weapon platform is behind the fear presented by the open letter above.
The writers and signatories of the letter foresee an AI arms race raising serious future repercussions.
“In summary, we believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so,” reads the letter. ”Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.”
This is not a new problem for military morality. In 2011, philosopher Patrick Lin spoke to the CIA about the ethics of military robotics and drones. The potential power behind AI, robotics, and the separation of the human condition from the psychological horror that is warfare.
Drones: As weapons and vandals (graffiti)
The concept and presence of drones is still entering the mainstream consciousness. Many times drones are seen as an annoyance, or a hobbyist profession when the public does it; or a terrifying weapon in the hands of the military—the Predator drone and its siblings receives a great deal of flack in this vein.
As for the purposes of this discussion, we will keep to civilian drone use. Although there’s little information on drones being used for remote repairs—such as the autonomous welder repair drones in the City of Paradigm excerpt—they have been used for graffiti and at least one has been outfit with a firearm.
Drone graffiti is already a thing, and it’s fairly amusing. One early Wednesday morning in April, KATSU, a well-known graffiti artist and vandal, used a Phantom drone to paint giant red lines across Kendall Jenner’s face on a billboard in New York City. The graffiti wasn’t very artistic, although it was effective and attracted a great deal of attention.
According to Wired, KATSU made headlines last year in April when he demonstrated how to attach a spray-paint can to an unmodified DJI Phantom drone. At the time he had been keeping his activities to canvases for galleries. This makes the first widely reported time that a drone had been used for vandalism.
“It turned out surprisingly well,” said KATSU about the vandalism. “It’s exciting to see its first potential use as a device for vandalism.”
In the case of outfitting a civilian drone with a firearm, it’s the case of a reckless teenager who got attention by releasing a video that went viral. In July, 2015, Austin Haughwot, 18, of Clinton, Connecticut attached a semi-automatic firearm to a small homemade quadcopter and videotaped it. This drew attention from numerous authorities, including the FAA, but none of them so far have ascertained that any laws have been broken by his antics.
Unfortunately for Haughwot, however, he already had an outstanding warrant for his arrest and ended up in an altercation with police the same month. He is now out on $200,000 bond. The warrant and his subsequent arrest had nothing to do with the drone or the video.
Feature image by SiliconANGLE
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