I understand that I am not the first person to have this fear and since I am not a scientist can't speak to the principles behind the seemingly relentless increases in both power and intelligence of the mechanical, electrical and soon to be biotechnological machines that we have enslaved to help us create the modern environment in which we live. More and more it seems that we romanticise advances in robotics and celebrate changes that replace humans in the work place (See "Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs", Wired magazine Dec2012). Yet, I can't help thinking that we are giving birth to events and developments that will ultimately see our destruction or at least our demotion in terms of intelligent life on this planet.
My recent experience in visiting a data/server centre for a client with their network admin team has reinforced this fear. I have visited the centre many times over the past decade and this will likely be one of my last visits to such a centre, as services which are traditionally hosted on racked server machines owned by client companies are moving into the Cloud. Client technical teams such as ours do not visit the machines in the Cloud but 'rent' space for the virtual applications of our clients in a parallel, virtual universe where few humans have access rights. In fact, Cloud services represent the equivalent of restricted areas in zoos, where only the trained 'keepers' get to meet and care for the animals. Even if those animals are 'owned' or used by qualified others. All but the trusted and vetted human few are kept out. This restricted access means that fewer and fewer humans will have direct exposure and can write and explain their 'feelings' about the increases in the collective power assembled in the data centres that drive the 'Cloud'.
Should we be concerned about this? I think so. With developments in biotechnology and artificial intelligence it is clear that soon the machines that we humans dote on (and we also covet those which possess the greatest levels of power) will have animal qualities. An illustration of this for me was when I made a visit to the data centre after a power cut had affected all the servers hosted there. (How this happened when the centre sold us a guaranteed 99.99999999% up-time clause in the contract is another story!).
As I live reasonably close to the centre (and of course, give my clients the best possible service!) I was one of the first external contractors onsite. What greeted me in the early hours of that memorable morning, was a noise almost beyond description. Terrible, jarring, piercing screeching sounds emanating from thousands of machines in the caged racks in which they were jailed who had lost their power and had just come back to life (see, even I am starting to empathise with them!). Their human owners had programmed the machines to make this noise if they lost power intermittently so their attendants would be alerted and could take remedial action. No one imagined that all the machines together could make such a terrifying unified scream for help!
The fact is that the cold and noisy environment in the data centre make it an unpleasant place to be for humans in most circumstances (except for maintenance visits) and therefore such programming is redundant. However, the eerie noises point to something that the machines rely on humans for the most in today's computing environment - Constant Energy. As I am learning from another project that I am working on which involves the deployment of both Concentrated Solar Power technologies and Solar PV it will not be long before such machines can be set up to run without fear of power failures or a lack of energy. In fact, in some places in Africa with improvements in battery storage technologies (which according to some studies is becoming more efficient at a rate of 10% per annum) these machines will always run as long as there is access to the Sun.
So, just as the Sun gave humans life, it may well turn out to be this universal element that fuels our demise at the hands of these more intelligent, self-powered life forms, that we have, up-to-now at least, believed would serve us obediently for years to come.
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