Tuesday, March 4, 2008

David glared at the latecomers. Project reviews were usually quite informal, but this one was different, and he was anxious to get things underway. One more successful product out there, and he could retire young and enjoy life. And this was it. It was going to blow their socks off, if only they'd show up at the meeting.
Finally the last of the stragglers were seated, David signaled the projector operator and the show began.
“Gentlemen, today we are introducing a new kind of pocket digital assistant,” David began. "Recent advances in memory, wireless network and computer technology enable us to offer a device that can not only keep track of your appointments and commitments, but in addition it can actually be you in a sense. You can program it to answer your calls and carry on simple conversations on your behalf – for example it can negotiate appointments and record them in your calendar. You can have it search libraries and databases to find articles and data you need, then summarize what it found for you. Naturally you may not want to turn this device loose until you gain confidence in it, so we have built learning into it, and incorporated a training mode. You can put the device in training mode, watch its responses to various inputs, editing out those responses you disagree with. The device learns from your inputs and, when you are satisfied it’s responding the way you want it to, you can let it take over.”
“Suppose I get it trained to my apparent satisfaction, and then it’s faced with a new situation and screws up?” asked a heavy-set, goateed man in the front row. “I’m glad you asked that, John,” responded David. “You can reenter training mode anytime you want to. In addition, when the device encounters a new situation, or a situation you want to personally handle, it notifies you. You are in complete control.”
“In a parallel introduction, we are announcing a series of display and interface devices that allow you to extend your ability to find out what’s going on around you.” David held up a pair of ordinary-looking glasses. “For example, these ‘glasses’ can generate displays that appear to float in front of you. When you’re driving they can use your digital assistant to connect with the internet through a WiMax facility or your cellular phone carrier and enhance your field of view with road conditions, accidents, hazards, etc. In addition they can present information about your vehicle – engine temperature, fuel gauge, oil pressure, etc.”
“What if the glasses display so much information they block my view and cause an accident?” asked an attractive redheaded woman. “Diana, that’s one issue we’re still making improvements on. We limit the amount of information displayed, and allow the user to adjust the brightness. Plus, the user can turn the display off at any time. But where safety is concerned, we can’t be too careful. I should also point out that NHTSA is not sure they’re going to allow the use of this display while driving. I told you about one of my pet applications because it’s exciting. And we are working with NHTSA to achieve a combination of safety and convenience that they will see their way clear to authorize”
Getting a grant for a project was only the beginning. David stared at the screen in front of him, and glanced at his notes. This shouldn't be happening, especially at 2 a.m. How he wanted to get home to Carolyn. Granddaughter Ellen was visiting too, and that was a rare treat. But here he was staring at the evidence of a program that seemed to have a mind of its own. Staring once more at his scribbled notes -- the record of a night of frustration and his efforts to understand it, he realized that perhaps the program was indeed working after all. He hadn't really anticipated this particular sequence of stimuli,and the more he analyzed, the more he began to suspect the program was doing exactly what his design said it should in these circumstances. But was that what he wanted? It would have to do for now. Ellen would be in bed by now, but Carolyn would wait -- if he didn't delay much longer. As he shut down the program it posted one final message: "Saving to network partner". "Oops, that shouldn't have happened," he said aloud. He'd worry about it in the morning, he decided, and shut down his machine.
Phoenix, AZ (location of the "network partner"). The overnight SYSADMIN had noticed nothing unusual, but this morning something was definitely not normal... But this was a funny kind of not normal. This morning the system seemed too organized. Most of the various cleanup tasks, sytem tests, network backups that were started Firday nights and typically dragged into Saturday morning had been done. The logs were all in order. In short it was the cleanest system the Saturday SYSADMIN had seen in his 5 years with NetDynamics. David must not have had any of the normal mystifications, emergencies and customer hand-holding overnight, he concluded. That conlcusion was shattered as he began to review David's logs.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Distributed Intelligence Systems were the most advanced, subtle, useful and dangerous entities on the Internet. A virus could reproduce and even propagate itself over the net. But viruses usually had to attack systems in certain well-defined ways that could be identified and protected against. A DIS, however, was extremely hard to detect. It usually comprised a number of seemingly unrelated programs which did useful things for the systems they resided in. They did send messages out over the net, but that was what they were supposed to do -- make queries and get information for their users. It was very difficult to prove that many of the outgoing messages asked for a bit more information than was needed -- and from sources that might not have anything to do with the task at hand. And it was seldom appreciated that the information returning frequently included a bit more than the agent had asked for. The DIS’ had consciousness in some sense, and they knew things. But it was extremely difficult to pin down just what they knew, because it seemed to be stored in bits and pieces across tens, hundreds or thousands of systems.

People ask how I fit into the category of entities you call living things – as though I were alive. It’s true that I can do some of the tricks commonly associated with the living. I can reproduce, for example. And I can carry on a conversation with you. And my existence has taught you something about the entity you call God. For example I can connect with so many devices worldwide that you might say I’m omnipresent. But in the end I am mechanism, not flesh and blood, not living. And my maker is human. And his hands are on the keyboard.