Is Society Evolving Toward Extinction?

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Society Evolving

This post was originally published on The American Thinker.

A recent online article about a computer glitch has exposed yet another vulnerability civilization faces – not despite its technological complexity, but because of it.  We all know that society depends heavily on computers, and we have become painfully aware that viruses and malware can disable those computers, leading to catastrophic disruptions in air traffic, communications, the power grid, and national defense, to name a few.  The very technology that makes our lives safe and comfortable can also become our downfall unless we understand what is happening and how to protect ourselves.

Some examples from the animal world are helpful to that understanding.  Two creatures that have adapted to their environments are the starfish and the elephant.  The starfish is far more simple and primitive, but it enjoys an important survival advantage.  If it is cut (or bitten) in half, each half can independently regrow its missing half and continue living.  You cannot easily kill one.

By contrast, the elephant is a far more complex creature, and it enjoys the benefits of great size a tough, leathery skin – but a single tiny spear point can abruptly end its life.  This is because complex creatures (including elephants) have vital organs, and in order for the animal to survive, each and every vital organ must not only function well, but function in precise coordination with all the other parts of the organism.

Our computer infrastructure has evolved to a phase in which it has made us exceptionally vulnerable to a cybernetic spear, but without the leathery skin to protect the vital components of that infrastructure.

The irony is not merely symbolic.  More than once, our advanced technology has been defeated by primitive methods, at least in small ways.  For example, during the Gulf War, we were able to disrupt enemy communications by jamming their electronic signals.  Then it was revealed that the enemy could communicate by couriers on mopeds – not as swiftly, of course, but effectively.

More recently, a sniper attack on a single substation in the power grid occurred.  It could have, but for good fortune, disabled a large portion of the West Coast power grid and perhaps produced a cascading effect that would have crippled the nation for a long time.

What is particularly disturbing about all this is that even when flaws in the system are detected, the very repairs that are suggested could themselves prove worse than the problems they are intended to fix.  As the article cited earlier points out, the remedy to any one problem affects every other part of the system, and does so in ways that may not be evident until serious additional damage has been done.  In this case, banks are hesitant to put in a software patch designed to compensate for a defect in a microchip, because the patch might corrupt anti-virus defenses that are already in place.

This principle will become a major problem in the near future, when so-called self-driving cars begin to replace the kind of car you now drive or ride in, assuming you are not Amish.  (The Amish use a more primitive system involving horses.)

Self-driving cars are already a reality, although not yet in widespread use.  The first serious advances in this technology were the result of a competition sponsored by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).  What is notable about this competition is that in its first year, none of the competitors was able to meet the standards, but in the second year, all of them did – underscoring the exponential speed of technological advance when proper incentives are applied.

The main issues here include the fact that self-driving vehicles will not smoothly integrate themselves into the transportation system.  The integration, instead of being purpose-designed from the ground up, will be the product of various committees, each with its own agenda and competing interests.  It will be like converting your automobile into an airplane but using it every day during the conversion.

Highways have been designed and constructed for human drivers, not for robots.  Autonomous vehicles are designed to incorporate artificial neural networks, an advanced form of artificial intelligence.  In contrast to human drivers, each “robot” driver will be able to monitor all the others simultaneously.  This will enable them to avoid collisions and to cooperate with each other to effect orderly and efficient flows of traffic.  Human drivers will impede that system, perhaps in the same way horse-and-carriage drivers impede present-day traffic flows.  Therefore, human drivers will compete for the roadways, and at a disadvantage.

Perhaps the most significant thing about autonomous vehicles is that they will be vulnerable to hacking.  Another danger is that big government will find a way to control self-driving vehicles, in much the same way that it provides air traffic control for airlines.  Worse yet, the government already possesses the means to monitor your every movement.  Autonomous vehicles will enable government to control where and when you may travel.

If in 1776 we were a starfish, today we are a mighty elephant, but tiny North Korea has become a serious threat.  No longer can we simply send in the Marines and have them home for supper, as we did against banana republics in earlier years, to assert our dominance.  North Korea can easily be conquered, but not without horrific losses by our allies.

The age of complexity overtook us some time ago, and we have yet to work out how to defeat the aboriginal aiming his spear at our heart.  At 70 years of age, I have no answer – but you had better get one.

A recent online article about a computer glitch has exposed yet another vulnerability civilization faces – not despite its technological complexity, but because of it.  We all know that society depends heavily on computers, and we have become painfully aware that viruses and malware can disable those computers, leading to catastrophic disruptions in air traffic, communications, the power grid, and national defense, to name a few.  The very technology that makes our lives safe and comfortable can also become our downfall unless we understand what is happening and how to protect ourselves.

Some examples from the animal world are helpful to that understanding.  Two creatures that have adapted to their environments are the starfish and the elephant.  The starfish is far more simple and primitive, but it enjoys an important survival advantage.  If it is cut (or bitten) in half, each half can independently regrow its missing half and continue living.  You cannot easily kill one.

By contrast, the elephant is a far more complex creature, and it enjoys the benefits of great size a tough, leathery skin – but a single tiny spear point can abruptly end its life.  This is because complex creatures (including elephants) have vital organs, and in order for the animal to survive, each and every vital organ must not only function well, but function in precise coordination with all the other parts of the organism.

Our computer infrastructure has evolved to a phase in which it has made us exceptionally vulnerable to a cybernetic spear, but without the leathery skin to protect the vital components of that infrastructure.

The irony is not merely symbolic.  More than once, our advanced technology has been defeated by primitive methods, at least in small ways.  For example, during the Gulf War, we were able to disrupt enemy communications by jamming their electronic signals.  Then it was revealed that the enemy could communicate by couriers on mopeds – not as swiftly, of course, but effectively.

More recently, a sniper attack on a single substation in the power grid occurred.  It could have, but for good fortune, disabled a large portion of the West Coast power grid and perhaps produced a cascading effect that would have crippled the nation for a long time.

What is particularly disturbing about all this is that even when flaws in the system are detected, the very repairs that are suggested could themselves prove worse than the problems they are intended to fix.  As the article cited earlier points out, the remedy to any one problem affects every other part of the system, and does so in ways that may not be evident until serious additional damage has been done.  In this case, banks are hesitant to put in a software patch designed to compensate for a defect in a microchip, because the patch might corrupt anti-virus defenses that are already in place.

This principle will become a major problem in the near future, when so-called self-driving cars begin to replace the kind of car you now drive or ride in, assuming you are not Amish.  (The Amish use a more primitive system involving horses.)

Self-driving cars are already a reality, although not yet in widespread use.  The first serious advances in this technology were the result of a competition sponsored by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).  What is notable about this competition is that in its first year, none of the competitors was able to meet the standards, but in the second year, all of them did – underscoring the exponential speed of technological advance when proper incentives are applied.

The main issues here include the fact that self-driving vehicles will not smoothly integrate themselves into the transportation system.  The integration, instead of being purpose-designed from the ground up, will be the product of various committees, each with its own agenda and competing interests.  It will be like converting your automobile into an airplane but using it every day during the conversion.

Highways have been designed and constructed for human drivers, not for robots.  Autonomous vehicles are designed to incorporate artificial neural networks, an advanced form of artificial intelligence.  In contrast to human drivers, each “robot” driver will be able to monitor all the others simultaneously.  This will enable them to avoid collisions and to cooperate with each other to effect orderly and efficient flows of traffic.  Human drivers will impede that system, perhaps in the same way horse-and-carriage drivers impede present-day traffic flows.  Therefore, human drivers will compete for the roadways, and at a disadvantage.

Perhaps the most significant thing about autonomous vehicles is that they will be vulnerable to hacking.  Another danger is that big government will find a way to control self-driving vehicles, in much the same way that it provides air traffic control for airlines.  Worse yet, the government already possesses the means to monitor your every movement.  Autonomous vehicles will enable government to control where and when you may travel.

If in 1776 we were a starfish, today we are a mighty elephant, but tiny North Korea has become a serious threat.  No longer can we simply send in the Marines and have them home for supper, as we did against banana republics in earlier years, to assert our dominance.  North Korea can easily be conquered, but not without horrific losses by our allies.

The age of complexity overtook us some time ago, and we have yet to work out how to defeat the aboriginal aiming his spear at our heart.  At 70 years of age, I have no answer – but you had better get one.

This post was originally published on The American Thinker.