Friday, December 19, 2014

Do no evil – really?

Do no evil – really?

By Nguyen Van Phu

When I was a small boy, I was obsessed with robots. Reading sci-fi novels, I just dreamed of the day when I have a small robot to be my all-powerful friend. I would ask and he would effortlessly answer all questions I had: How far away is the Moon? When did the first World War break out? What’s the weather like in Paris right now? Just imagine having a friend like that in your classroom, you don’t have to avoid your teacher’s eyes any more.

That dream gradually faded away as I grew older until recently when I realized all of a sudden that all these wildest - and at times weirdest - sci-fi ideas have long become reality. You only have to watch Amazon’s latest video introducing Echo to know what’s in the offer. Today's applications expand the definition of “robot” to a magnitude unimaginable a decade ago. Even an application like Facebook, for instance, is essentially a robot connecting you with friends and relatives in real time.

Believe it or not, the novelty of a smart phone answering your questions tirelessly can wear out quite fast. There is only a lingering bad taste in my mouth after uttering the wake word, “OK, Google” repeatedly. Maybe because of my wife’s disdainful look  at her husband's non-stop blabbering to a machine. Maybe because of the horrifying possibility that I will say “OK, Google” more often than greeting friends or neighbors.

I still remember Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

As a boy I took these laws for granted and enjoyed the sci-fi novels without worrying too much about the well-being of mankind. Anyway, the human race always triumphs in the long run, doesn’t it?

Now that robots, or some forms of robotic intelligence are available, I wonder if the inventors ever thought of these laws when they built them. Facebook, if we agree that it is a robot of some sort, obviously does not observe the first law.

Someone hacked your Facebook account, post on your timeline a moving story aimed at squeezing tears and some money from your friends. Would Facebook know that it is a hacker behind the status and not you? Certainly. Would Facebook somehow alert your friend list of a possible scam? Absolutely nothing.

I was duly impressed with Photomath, an app that uses your smart phone’s camera to solve mathematical expressions until I realized that it does eventual harm to any student abusing this app and not learn math skills he is supposed to learn. Does the maker of Photomath stop the app from harming users? Absolutely not.

I have no idea who will be held responsible if a driverless car causes an accident but I know drones have been used to kill people remotely. That is a chilling realization that somehow someday drones don’t need remote controllers; they can make on the spot decisions based on criteria set by human beings.

I also remember how sci-fi novels described the total destruction machines would bring to humankind. You have at least four Terminator films to drive home the possibility, however remote it is. But nobody seems to care that machines have in fact destroyed, or radically changed a lot of industries, including newspapers, music or publishing.

The destruction might continue as new business models take over such as Uber or Airbnb.

Here I want to add an ironic touch: it seems a sharing economy is what an ideal socialist society should strive for. But Vietnam, as a communist country, might find Uber or Airbnb too disruptive and might ban these services on the local corporate lobbying efforts.

Old-school sci-fi novels usually start with the assumption that technological advances affect everybody equally. The fact is, today, digital divide means a lot of people are marginalized as far as technological advances are concerned. Whether it is a curse or a blessing in disguise for them remains to be seen. But that’s why on the one hand, we see Amazon Echo and on the other hand, we see barbarian acts of beheading still being practiced.

That’s why my sci-fi dreams remain a dream.