Despite being a dramatisation of real life, recent series and movies are an indicator technology could turn our lives upside down – be it Black Mirror’s bee drones attacking citizens or Mr Robot hackers destroying an entire company’s data. It’s no surprise though that we forget most producers and writers involve futurists in the creation of these fiction-based technology horrors.
“While we all know you should take plot lines with a pinch of salt, certain films take scenarios and the use of technology to an unrealistic level,” François Amigorena, CEO of IS Decisions, told Real Business. “A perfect example is 80s classic WarGames. A bored kid gains access to a US military computer system with a simple backdoor password, almost starting World War III while thinking he’s playing a game. It’s hard to believe the military has such poor access management.”
Far-fetched plot lines aren’t the preserve of movies though, he exclaimed, pointing a finger at the BBC’s MI5-focused Spooks. “In countless episodes a rogue agent sidle up to a colleague’s computer, cracks the basic password in seconds, whacks in a USB stick and walks off with an entire hard drive’s worth of data.”
But we watch programmes and movies to escape our boredom, after all, so who cares? The experts do – and they’re warning us that while fiction-based technology horrors take liberties, we shouldn’t dispel everything we see. While MI5 agents couldn’t do too much damage with a USB stick, the possibility of staff stealing data is real. This element of truth is especially so when it comes to cybercrime. One of the biggest examples? The Matrix.
Nothing about the trilogy seems possible. Let’s forget the debate about living under the thumb of the machines and the movie’s super-strength robot suits existing in some form. Of more consequence to business owners, Amigorena explained, is that Trinity can be seen using real-life security scanner Nmap to bypass a power plant’s security in The Matrix Reloaded – correctly.
In fact, David Emm, principle security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, believes most fiction-based technology horrors inspire gadgets and events. “In Terminator 2, John Connor uses an Atari Portfolio to hack an ATM. This was later realised when cyber group Metel infiltrated a network of banks and automated the roll-back of ATM transactions. Members were able to use debit cards to steal money from ATMs. So don’t cast fiction aside as something that will never happen. It’s often far closer than you think, so be prepared.”
Similarly, Marc Rogers, technical advisor to Mr Robot, claimed all hacks in the series were tested beforehand. He said: “People don’t realise when they see a hack take place on screen I will have built that hack and tried it out at home. You’ll see little groups of people forming on Reddit, taking a look and dissecting what we’re doing, so everything has to be real.”
While reality looks far less cool than they make it out to be on screen, he stressed, its effects are just as dangerous.
Moving away from the cyber element of our list on fiction-based technology horrors is the human android. It’s been suggested that the likes of Prometheus’ David and the cast of Humans will be realised in our lifetime. But not everyone is comfortable with that thought. Stephen Hawking, for example, believes “humanity is going be the architect of its own destruction, especially if it creates a super-intelligence with a will of its own”.
It’s also one of the reasons why Tesla founder Elon Musk created non-profit OpenAI, launched on the basis that AI could become a threat far sooner than we expected. “The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year time frame,” he explained. “Some ten years at most.”
But by the time these intelligent beings are among us, it might already be too late. A creepy saying from Westworld comes to mind: “These violent delights have violent ends.”
“By too late we don’t necessarily mean androids will take over but that there will be a period where we can’t tell the difference between a human and a machine because the point of evolution between what appears intelligent and conscious actually becomes intelligent and conscious will be obscured,” said Adam Laurie, director Aperture Labs. “If that’s the case, we will be too late to stop anything happening or engineer it in a more controllable way.”
Would they really be that dangerous though? Future of Life’s Ariel Conn has scrutinised AI safety issues in Westworld, saying: “The park is overseen by one man who can make whatever programme updates he wants without running it by anyone for a safety check. The robots show signs of remembering their mistreatment. One of the characters mentions that only one line of code keeps the robots from being able to harm humans.
“These are just some of the problems the show touches on that present real AI safety concerns: A single ‘bad agent’ who uses advanced AI to intentionally cause harm to people; small glitches in the software that turn deadly; and a lack of redundancy and robustness in the code to keep people safe.”
In any case, the key seems to be treating robots with decency as they could learn the wrong lessons from us. You only need to take a look at what happened to Twitter’s AI chatbot to realise how things could go wrong. It further highlights that fiction-based technology horrors aren’t as impossible as they seem.
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