January 31, 2014 by T. Gregory Argall
As is often the case, while searching for one thing I rediscovered another. In this case I was looking on my computer for something I wrote a while ago and instead I found this week’s recycled filler, which I wrote nearly four years ago.
I used to actively seek out things that I could mock and wonder about. Now they’re everywhere, stupid things. You can’t turn around without tripping over one.
For example, last weekend I used an ATM at a bank that is not my regular financial institution. Initially, the on-screen prompts were fairly standard, what I’d expect at any bank machine.
Enter Your PIN it prompted. I entered my PIN (which is definitely not 9823).
Choose A Transaction Type it urged. I chose Withdraw Cash because, after all, that was what I wanted to do.
Then it became… odd.
Normally, the ATM would then ask me which account I would like to access in order to withdraw the cash, and it did, in fact, ask just such a question. It was the way in which the question was presented that got me wondering and, indeed, mocking.
Displayed on the screen of the ATM was the phrase “From” Which Account?
Yes, that’s right. There were quotation marks around a single word in the sentence.
I immediately realized that one of two possible factors was at play in this situation.
A/ The machine had not only spontaneously developed sentience (SkyNet here we come!), it had also used its newfound intelligence to develop philosophy. It was being existentially ironic, suggesting that, just as energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred from one form to another, so, too, money cannot be created only altered in form. The money I withdraw won’t actually come from anywhere. It already exists. I am merely altering the manner in which it will be interpreted.
As inevitable as the link between sentient computers and the enslavement of all mankind is, the consequences of a philosophy-driven machine intelligence are even more frightening.
Consider this scenario, in which the epitome of American technology knocks on the door and asks, with an Austrian accent, “Are you Sarah Connor?”
“…Yes,” replies the young woman who looks startlingly like Linda Hamilton.
“Have you ever considered our purpose in the universe?”
Seventy-two hours later the killer robot from the future is still prattling on about the metaphysically artificial nature of good and evil in a post-industrial society, while Sarah Connor puts a shotgun under her chin and blows her own brains out just to get him to shut the hell up.
B/ The highly educated computer technician who programmed the ATM is a functionally illiterate, text-message-obsessed twit who couldn’t use proper punctuation to save his life.
I don’t know which is worse. At least with option A there is some hope for the survival of humanity. When the pondering hordes of neo-Nietzsche automatons from the post-apocalyptic future come knocking, we can just pretend we’re not home. You know, like we do with those other guys.
As I left the bank parking lot, I saw a van with a license plate that read “H E P L.”
As I sped past it, I said, “Sorry, buddy. You’re on your own. You’ll just have to save yourself.” Then I giggled far more than I probably should have.
So, until SkyNet takes over and fills us all with cyber-ennui, try to be nice to each other.