Children Of The Corn

What if the future many fear is already here?   What if our focus on killer robots is  just a dangerous distraction?  A red herring?   What if we are about to be overthrown by a hypnotised Generation Z, using a globally co-ordinated attack instigated via Minecraft?  Let’s face it, adults don’t get Minecraft, so it would be the perfect vector to start a modern version of the opening scene from Children Of The Corn.


We seem to spend a great deal of  attention on the notion of runaway super-intelligent robots.   This is on a scale between “they’ll steal all our jobs” up to full blown Terminator/Matrix style dystopian science fiction.    I’ve been guilty of the same on here to a certain extent, albeit a little tongue in cheek.

Many are not so worried, and cite concepts like the “Frame Problem” (coined by Daniel Dennett) as reasons to be sceptical of the notion of “AGI” (Artificial General Intelligence).  I recently witnessed a compelling example of the “Frame Problem” illustrated in a video.  It featured a 12 year old girl walking with her family on a beach in Thailand on Boxing Day 2004.   She noticed that the sea began foaming and making a strange fizzing sound, and recalled years earlier a geography lesson at school where a favoured, charismatic, and therefore memorable teacher had explained that such phenomena was a typical precursor to a Tsunami.  Recalling that particular memory, applying it to her current sensory experience, using her uneasy “feeling”, her intuition, perfectly timed with an injection of adrenaline, resulted in an act that saved the lives of around 100 people!   She basically evacuated the entire beach, and just in time!

It’s hard to imagine a machine, robot or otherwise, embedded and embodied in the environment to such an extent as to be able to join those dots in that human manner and act accordingly with the correct order of priorities and incentives aligned within its programming.    How do we mimic millions of years of largely mysterious human evolution?  Should we even try to?

After-all, even Google’s vaunted Deepmind program “AlphaGo”, that can defeat the very best human at the most complicated of human games, “Go!”, is completely and utterly crap at Chess!   It is still just “Narrow AI”.  Powerful.  Exciting.  But still narrowly focused only on a clear single task.


Moravec’s paradox (articulated by Hans Moravec in the 1980’s) dictates that there is an inversion in the computational power requirements of what takes significant human effort (data analysis, critical thinking, complex decision making, etc.) to that of mundane, nugatory, sub-conscious human tasks (walking, picking things up, tactile interaction with objects and environment, etc).   The later is far harder and more expensive to achieve than the former – which through breakthroughs in Data Analytics and Machine Learning – computers have become far more adept.


That all said, the “ATLAS” robot (below) may have just back-flipped it’s way over Moravec’s paradox?   Scary stuff!

atlas rise

Either way, what we fear from runaway AGI may be a little far off.   Elon Musk, and others may not necessarily agree with me on this, and I am sure I could be convinced otherwise..

Does all the above take our eye’s a little off the ball though?    For instance, I’ve blogged before (twice) on the nefarious byproducts inherent in Social Media with its apparently attendant “Surveillance Capitalism” business model (targeted, human psychology-aware digital advertising) here:

Sugar & Salt

Time *well* spent

What’s happening to us now though?   Should we fear runaway sentient Robots or should we fear runaway consumerisation Algorithms?   It’s probably healthy to show respect for both, but which of the two are the most likely to cause our species immediate harm?    As our children gaze into the iPad, what damage can Social Media addiction and the machine learning “click bait” do to their psychology?  Indeed, what impact has it had on our society?  Our institutions?  Our politics?   Our Governments?   How will it change us? And what can we do about it?


For instance, a friend of mine recently explained to me that he was unable to visit an older relative (which required an overnight stay) with his teenagers for the simple reason that there was no WiFi there!   They, quite literally, refused to do without it for any sustained period.    This sounds like an addiction to me, and I can imagine it to be pretty common-place with teenagers.   Or so I have been warned anyway.


I have 2 younger children, with iPad’s, and for now have successfully managed to ration their use and prevent my children from using Social Media (apart from benign videos on YouTube).   This means that, for now until they are older, they’re not exposed to the worst aspects.   But they are only 9 and 7 and they don’t have the password!   I worry for the teenager years now more than ever before.

Devices will provide constant distraction, unless you turn off notifications and focus on self discipline.  I have (for the most part), and have noted a significant improvement, but can we expect our children to protect themselves in similar ways?   We must surely help them for the sake of their own mental well-being?

My hope is for a two-pronged attack through an increase in awareness both on the user side, and a teleological tweak from the developer side.   We’re in live Game Theory territory, but we also live at a time were we can alter the program to perhaps achieve similar objectives, but by much less harmful means.  After all, I am not making the case that evil internet companies are plotting our destruction though advertising, far from it, just that the human impact of their methods have not been completely thought through.  Cock-up theory trumps conspiracy theory most of the time.    But we do have the opportunity to both educate, and reconfigure these tools before they run amok with their methods and modes of distraction.

For example, the attached link describes a click-bait system the self generates its own news, automatically analysing its success to refine and improve it’s use of language for the next cycle, and so on, and so on:

Auto-Generating Click-bait With Recurrent Neural Networks

I am heartened to see that these subjects have been given more real media attention recently, and I hope that this attention will result in initiatives that address this slide into this growing digital trance.   As well as, of course, educate the guardians of the immediate future (i.e. Minecraft illiterate parents) on how to support the next generation in order to protect their freedom and autonomy, and to get them to look up from the device once in a while!       Here is a BBC article from this morning for instance:

Teenagers and Social Media addiction

Not many people read this blog, but hopefully those that do will look into this a little further and do what you can to protect those nearest..

Happy New Year by the way!!



2 thoughts on “Children Of The Corn

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