The War Against the Machines

In which The Author is on the winning side

You probably don’t need me to tell you that I’m a huge fan of The Matrix and The Terminator films (except the most recent two in the series – but that goes without saying). What self-respecting Science Fiction fan wouldn’t be turned on (intellectually) by the idea of self-aware artificial intelligence deciding that it represents the next stage of evolution?
Just this week, an open letter from a thousand respected researchers in science and technology – including Professor Stephen Hawking, no less – warned of the potential dangers of letting autonomous weapon systems loose in combat situations. If you’ve seen the third film in the Terminator trilogy, you’ll remember that that’s exactly what happened: the Pentagon decided to hand the entire US military-industrial complex to a cybernetic system called Skynet, which quickly assumed control and declared war on the human race. While the film may be fiction (now), the possibility of self-aware battlefield weapons is a very real one, and the note of caution sounded by experts in the field probably shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
About this time last year, I wrote a post briefly summarising the development of robots in SF, from Karel Capek’s original play R.U.R., through the Daleks and the Cybermen, to The Terminator and beyond. (I can’t insert a link to it here, because I’m using a public access PC in Aberdare Library, instead of my Netbook, and Internet Explorer won’t let me open the archive.) Now, it seems, the real world may be about to catch up with the fiction.
I should explain that I’m only using Internet Explorer because Firefox crashed when I tried to access the Guardian crossword in its PDF version about half an hour ago. Normally, I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.
In turn, I’m using a public access PC because the wifi in the library isn’t working. I wasn’t at all surprised when I failed to connect this morning. I was here yesterday too, and it took a call to the No Help Desk and about a forty minute wait before another regular and I were able to log in. When the entire public access network started to collapse, at about 3.30 p.m., I knew we’d be in for a blackout today. I know some of the local authority staff have taken reduced hours as part of staff cutbacks, but I’ve never before encountered a piece of fucking computer hardware that only worked a four-day week.
Even when I have been using my Netbook, I’ve been forced to use an external USB keyboard. The built-in keyboard died a fortnight ago. Fortunately I had an external keyboard at home, so I’ve had to cart that around with me ever since. Once I got used to having a numeric keypad where there isn’t usually one, and got over the habit of taking screenshots by mis-hitting the keys, it’s a decent compromise until I can fit a new keyboard.
Even before my Netbook started playing silly buggers, the flat screen monitor attached to my desktop PC had gone on the fritz. There must be a loose connection in there somewhere, as there was an unpleasant crackling sound from within whenever I switched it on, and I had to fiddle with the mains cable to make it stay on. After a while, I couldn’t even switch it off – it just went into self-test mode and cycled through a series of pleasant colours until I switched it off at the plug. Now it seems to have died entirely. There’s a similar model in the library displaying exactly the same symptoms. Still, I shouldn’t grumble, as my friend Jennifer gave it to me a few years ago when my old CRT monitor bit the dust. I’ve seen one in a second-hand shop, so I’ll probably be able to pick up a replacement fairly cheaply.
The final insult came during the early hours of Sunday morning. At precisely 2.11 a.m., in fact. My Nokia semi-smartphone (ringtones, camera, Internet capability) was sitting on the shelf above my bed as usual. It beeped once. I wasn’t asleep anyway. Graham, the hero of H. G. Wells’s novel When the Sleeper Wakes (see Another Security Leak From the Future) stayed awake for six days and nights before falling into his 200-year coma. Only six days and nights? When it comes to insomnia, that’s strictly fucking amateur league.
It wasn’t the sound it makes when I receive a text – as happened a fortnight earlier, when Anna decided to text me in a drunken rage at about 5 a.m. It was the electronic equivalent of a hungry baby’s cry – it wanted me to charge it up.
I wouldn’t have minded normally. I knew the battery was fairly low, as it had been bleating plaintively all through Saturday morning. I gave it a quick burst before heading to Cwmbach in the afternoon, and then forgot to plug it in when I got home. I switched it off (the equivalent of an old school mother giving her baby a drop of gin?) and gave it a full charge in the afternoon.
On Tuesday it went flat again.
It did the same on Thursday afternoon.
After getting a full charge from zero yesterday morning, it’s now firing on about half a tank. I’m going to London on Tuesday, so I’ll have to make sure it’s fully charged on Monday evening, otherwise I could be stuck without a timecheck when I’m wandering around the city.
Skynet is still displaying evidence of its presence in the library IT network, by the way. The crosswords from the Guardian and FT were sitting in the print queue, waiting for me to ask Judith to release them, when the printer suddenly came to life just now. I thought it must have been something which Judith herself had requested – but no, my crosswords appeared as if my magic. (Or, maybe, as if by potentially hostile AI software.)
Considering what a terrific job I’ve done in the past few months of rendering various pieces of electronic technology all but useless, I’m thinking of changing my name. I can’t decide between Thomas Anderson or John Connor. Personally, I think you can just call me Neo and have done with it.
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