By these standards, robots are ideal agents to explore space for us. But
there are numerous examples of failed mechanical endeavors that in the end could
only be handled by people. Net
Nanny and other software packages are supposed to keep children from surfing
pornographic web sites, and urine tests are supposed to stop their drug abuse.
These measures only go so far. They cannot replace Mom and Dad’s common sense,
continuous concern and intrusive eyes.
Even so, social control mechanisms are particularly seductive to
engineers. The Total Information Awareness program, the FBI’s Carnivore
email program, and the airline passenger profiler CAPS II are examples.
Engineers are control freaks as a condition of employment, which is usually a
good thing. You wouldn’t want to
bet your life in a passenger jet designed by a poet. But there are no technical
cures for philosophical diseases such as religious hatred.
“One of the critiques of expert systems is that they aren’t broad,”
says Ohio University Robotic Engineer David Chelberg.
“They have no common sense. They’re very good at what they do, but if
you ask them a nonsensical question, they’ll give you a nonsensical answer.”
In particular, the TIA is run by DARPA, the same government research agency
that originally invented the Internet. The TIA motto reads: Scientia est
Potentia (Science is Power) and their emblem, before it was redesigned to
something less threatening, depicted a huge eye glaring down on North America.
TIA is designing guardian computers to analyze every scrap of data in
every electronic database, public or private.
These meticulous dredging machines would sift through medical and tax
records, school grades, travel tickets, and every credit card purchase at every
supermarket. They would then make
arcane correlations between all the bits, it is hoped, and automatically weed
out suspects before their crimes could be committed.
The basic premise of the operation is that innocent people should have
nothing to hide.
Even with domestic restrictions TIA research and development is going
ahead, funded at ten million dollars this year, and twice that for 2004.
Undeterred, DARPA began a second program for computer analysis of public
surveillance cameras, called “Combat Zones that See”,
a system to recognize and track faces and license plates as they migrate to and
through cities. DARPA made headlines again last month when it was revealed in
Congress that it had set up a computerized futures market, called TerrorBet.
Participants would guess what target would be blown up next and be
rewarded if correct. It outraged
Congress and humiliated senior Pentagon officials. Program head John Poindexter
was subsequently asked to resign.
James Bamford, in his book Body of Secrets revealed that the
National Security Administration already has the ability to hear, if not
actively listen to, every electronic data exchange on the planet.
But the NSA could not prevent the 911 attacks because the planners knew
that their lines were tapped. The
terrorists shunned technology. When they communicated at all, they used pencil
and paper. So if super-computers
won’t work, then what will?
A Minnesota flight instructor snitched Zacarias Moussaoui to the FBI when
the student allegedly wanted to learn to fly a plane, but not to land it.
The very idea was an insult to the instructor’s common sense.
Passengers on American Airlines Flight 63 tackled Robert Reid when they
spotted him trying to light the fuse on his shoes.
The best tool for the job of recognizing demented humans is not a snoopy
robot but rather another alert human.
Like King Midas in his golden garden, we are sometimes too trusting of
our magical technology. We can’t all be like the Amish, who turn their backs
on electricity and yet live worthwhile lives.
But we must be wise enough to take what we need from high tech, to leave
the costly junk, and to see the difference.
--text and photo by Raymond