When I was flying back to Washington D.C. after the holiday break, the airport TSA worker at my gate asked if I was traveling with smart luggage when I went to check my bag. I had no idea what she was talking about, but upon further research I discovered that smart luggage are new types of bags and suitcases that contain USB ports for charging electronic devices, a GPS system to track the bag’s whereabouts, electronic locks, and a weight scale to prevent overpacking (Isidore, 2018). Some are even equipped with a motor to propel them alongside the owner in the airport (2018).
I began thinking about how many “smart” devices we have come to rely on: smartphones, smart boards, smartwatches, smart cars, smart luggage, and many more. Actually, in retrospect, the 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House– in addition to being a childhood favorite of mine- proved to be rather prescient in predicting our infatuation and dependance on technology, especially machine learning and artificial intelligence.
In his book Machine Learning – The New AI, Ethem Alpaydin (2016) writes “Ubiquitous computing is a term that is becoming increasingly popular…it means using a lot of computers for all sorts of purposes all the time without explicitly calling them computers” (p. 9). With our increased usage of smart technologies, our daily actions (when we wake up, who we talk to, which websites we visit, where we go, what we pack, what we buy, etc.) are being increasingly monitored. As Alypaydin (2016) puts it, “The smartphone is a mobile sensor that makes us detectable, traceable, recordable” (p. 8). With the smartphone and other “smart” technologies that make their way into our everyday lives, all of our activities and behavior become mediated, quantified, documented, and stored in a server. On one hand, this is exciting and convenient, because “we want our needs to be understood and our interests to be predicted” (Alpaydin, 2016, p. 16), but on the other hand, it raises justified privacy and surveillance concerns, in addition to a growing concern that we may becoming too reliant (or at least too codependent) on these technologies.
In the sci-fi fueled Marvel comic universe, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) created an AI system named J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) to help run his business and protect his home and office. Stark also uploaded JARVIS into his Iron Man suit(s), to provide an interface and and other forms of digital assistance. Stark continued to give JARVIS increased responsibilities, until the AI system helped him create a global peacekeeping program called the Ultron Program. Unfortunately, when Ultron was activated, it began questioning JARVIS about having a body:
“Hello, I am J.A.R.V.I.S.. You are Ultron, a global peace-keeping initiative designed by Mr. Stark. Our sentience integration trials have been unsuccessful so I’m not certain what triggered your…”
“Where’s my… Where is your body?”
“I am a program. I am without form.”
Ultron refused to accept its assigned state of being, and in true sci-fi fashion, destroyed its creator ( JARVIS) and set out to synthesize a bodily form and destroy the planet. Of course, without his trusty AI system, Iron Man was temporarily handicapped against his new AI opponent (for more on this story, see Avengers: Age of Ultron).
While this anecdote isn’t especially out of the ordinary, and has been recycled in countless other sci-fi stories, it does serve as a nod to our increasing reliance and unwavering faith in machine learning and smart technologies. What happens when some (or all) of our cumulative personal data- which is now stored outside of our possession- gets lost, destroyed, or corrupted? Could life as we know it endure?
Another quote from the week’s reading that seemed to coincide with the JARVIS/Ultron anecdote (sentient technology seeking a bodily form) came from Herbert Simon’s (2008) The Sciences of the Artificial: “For if it is the organization of components, and not their physical properties, that largely determines behavior, and if computers are organized somewhat in the image of man, then the computer becomes an obvious device for exploring the consequences of alternative organizational assumptions for human behavior” (p. 21). Even if future AI machines aren’t as destructive and genocidal as Ultron, much could be learned about human behavior from observing the machine’s behavior, especially if it’s acting based on enormous reserves of collected human data.
Alpaydin, E. (2016). Machine learning: the new AI. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Isidore, C. (2018, December 5). Most US airlines set to limit use of “smart bags.” CNN. Retrieved from https://money.cnn.com/2017/12/05/technology/smart-bag-limits/index.html