Monday, 15 June 2015

Fear of automation

I don't really mean in the Luddite way, though.

Although there is an element of that; I've never used one of those self-scan things at the supermarket for instance. I'm sure they're great for some people, but each one gets rid of a checkout operator's job. It's logical for the supermarket - once the capital outlay of the self-scan machine is paid for, it's an ongoing saving of thousands of pounds each year - but I just don't think it's right. I think I do realise that it's here now and it's largely inevitable that it will proliferate, though, whether I like it or not.

There's been a couple of high-profile (Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk) folk warning about artificial intelligence lately and its threat to humanity. I can see their point; although genuine machine intelligence isn't really anywhere near yet, it probably will be some day (maybe when we understand more about how the human brain works) and there's definitely potential for evil there.

I'm thinking more about automated processes following algorithms that for one reason or another go wrong. There was a news story about this a few months back about a lot of Amazon sellers losing a lot of money. Most of the big Amazon marketplace sellers use an add-on program to monitor the sales, stock levels, prices, etc. of all their items; these programs also compare your price to everyone else's. If you wish, you can set the program to reduce your price to a penny below the cheapest available, or just to match the best price, or whatever, but crucially you would set a minimum price for each item (so as not to sell at a loss). Now I can't remember the name of the program used, but it went wrong for a couple of hours and during this period effectively reduced the price of every item to a penny (well, everyone selling on Amazon that was using this program, anyway).

The error was noticed pretty quickly by the sellers, but not before the damage was done. I'm not fully up on the consumer laws, but I'm sure most of the sellers that were affected were able to mitigate the loss in some way, i.e. those in control of their own stock, because they could come to some arrangement with the customers. The real problem was for the people that had signed up for the "Fulfilled by Amazon" service, which is effectively the next layer of automation. You sell your stock on the marketplace in the usual way, but the difference is that you've send the actual physical product to Amazon for them to pick, pack and despatch. Under this system, the processing of an order can be done in minutes, which is how one machine parts manufacturer lost something like a quarter of a million pounds, all his stock of £50, £100, £200, whatever items had sold at a penny each and Amazon had already automatically despatched the stock.

I dunno what happened with that in the end - I know Amazon argued that it wasn't their fault, rather a fault with an add-on program not within their control - but I'm getting off the point anyway,

So, along these lines, I am fascinated by the idea of self-replicating machines, which to an extent already exist, but can only operate under specific controlled conditions (most crucially, the availability to them of the appropriate building materials). But what if you could get a self-replicating machine that was able to successfully forage for the materials it needs to replicate itself?

I've a feeling that's all a bit muddled up. Maybe I'll come back to it later (unless the machines have taken over by then, of course).

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