Artificial Intelligence – What Could Possibly Go Wrong … Go Wrong … Go Wrong … ?

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There is a very old joke that goes, “Shortly after take off, the passengers of a cross-country flight hear a pleasant voice over the airplane intercom, ‘We’re pleased to announce that this flight is being conducted in a completely automated mode. There are no pilots in the cockpit.  Our excellent systems will fly you in complete comfort and safety to our destination. We wish to assure you that we have invested extensively in this automated system, and it is completely safe.  There is nothing that can go wrong … go wrong … go wrong …’”

That bit of humor (unless you were one of the passengers) highlights a couple of important observations:

  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics – paraphrased as, “Left to itself, everything goes to hell.”
  • Murphy’s Law – Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

These are extremely important insights as we move into a world of artificial-intelligence-enabled devices.  A recent news article announced the forthcoming release of Mattel’s Aristotle, an Internet-enabled, artificial-intelligence system to help parents raise their children from infancy to adolescence (yes, that is what they claim).  The device has both audio and video sensors and uses 256-bit, end-to-end encryption. Aristotle also enables parents to set controls limiting the information that can be accessed by Aristotle and the directions to which the device can respond. What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s take a look.

  • Encryption only protects against unauthorized access to information on the various networks. The 256-bit encryption is strong and should prevent curious hackers from gaining access to the system. That said, 256-bit encryption is also used in the health care industry, and cyber breaches there have emphatically demonstrated that 256-bit encryption is not invulnerable.
  • Aristotle (and similar, future systems) connects to the owner’s WiFi network – the same network to which all of the owner’s other “smart” devices are connected. These other devices may or may not have the same level of cyber-protection that Aristotle has and may offer access to cyber attackers.
  • Encryption does nothing to control the actual information entering the system. Parental controls do offer a level of control of incoming information, but there is no practical way to prevent a determined programmer from beaming malicious info into smart devices, including Aristotle. A recent article, Twitter Taught Microsoft’s AI Chatbot to be a Racist @#$%^&&** $^ in Less Than a Day, on Microsoft’s Tay chatbot is illustrative.
  • Aristotle has attracted the attention of third-party application developers. In accommodating those developers, Mattel will have to release the technical description of Aristotle’s API (Application Program Interface). While API’s can certainly include security requirements, they are, by necessity, a description of how to “get into” the system.
  • Aristotle is intended to help parents educate their young children. This education function offers the potential for both malicious hackers and well meaning but philosophically divergent developers to “educate” young children in directions not acceptable to the parents.

Can systems like Aristotle help reduce the workload on parents (in the case of Aristotle) as they labor to raise their children while trying to cope with an increasingly complex and burdensome role? Absolutely! Is there risk? Absolutely! Do they require the owners to intelligently control and monitor the system in use? Absolutely!  People need to view all Internet-connected devices, particularly devices as powerful as Aristotle, as tools – tools that must be used expertly to gain the maximum benefits, and tools that can be as dangerous as other tools.

The Firestorm Predict.Plan.Perform approach is as valuable in acquiring and using internet-enabled devices as it is in addressing any other risky environment.

OBTW addendum:

On January 6th, a news article reported that Alexa, in responding to TV news reports about the six-year-old girl ordering the dollhouse, began ordering the $172 dollhouse in cities and towns across the country.  It would appear that someone has found the perfect business model.

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