Beauty is in the eye of the bot holder -- and woe be unto the rest of us

This is how the world ends: The greatest minds of our generation have united to create the equivalent of a pageant judge, wrapped in a silicon shell

binary eye circuits
Credit: Thinkstock

Why isn’t there a tire-changing robot? The thought stabbed me on a lonely shoulder off I-95 as slush from a two-foot snow bank seeped into my skivvies on the way home from the airport. My cab driver apparently hadn’t noticed the Steinway-sized pothole, and the Lincoln’s wheels apparently weren’t designed to withstand an 11.5 jolt on the Richter scale. That's how my lug nuts and I ended up on the side of the road.

Really, why not a robot? Wheelbase -- there, I named it. GE, put your cheeks in gear and make one. Little R2Wheel2 could pop out of my trunk, lift the car with a merry beep, and switch 'em up quick without regard for weather or passing New York drivers screaming, “Get off the road!” I think one of them threw a Slurpee at me, but I was too soaked to notice. I got the job done, but at the cost of both gloves, a pair of jeans, and hours from my life. Oh, how I could've used a bot buddy at that moment.

But what do I get instead of a simple-minded, tire-swapping droid? Headline after headline describing Bill Gates’ shrieks and conniptions every time someone sneaks up behind him and yells, “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!” Bill, Elon, and Stevie -- it seems everyone’s afraid of ultrasophisticated AIs, and they’ll grow even more terrified once Google, Sony, and GE give them wheels and legs and arms. Yet no one’s researching harmless bot tech that might be easier to build, safer to develop, and useful right now rather than years down the road. Instead, it’s someday-AI this and self-driving experimental that and Singularity the other thing.

Don't hate the bot, hate the brain

I’m not in the camp of inevitable AI doom. There’s no reason to think an AI will automatically become homicidal when it figures out that most of us bio-buckets are moral and physical train wrecks. Unless of course, we’re stupid enough to program them that way.

Who would perpetrate such a bait-brained, mollusk-minded, numb-nutted epic fail, you might wonder incredulously (“you” being people plagued by common sense and a smidge of decency)? I’ll tell you who: wing nut robot researchers, that’s who.

Changing tires is too dull and useful. We can’t have that. We have to shoot for the crazy moon, otherwise all this grant money will go to waste. Google’s putting well-researched smiley faces on bot skulls to see how calm we remain when a bolt bag knocks on the door and asks us to step into the blood-stained van marked “Biodisposal.” A crew at MIT is teaching the things to build each other and think like a hive mind. No way that’s ominous. Now the yahoos at Yahoo are teaching a machine to pick out beautiful people.

Beauty and the bot

I’m not kidding. A bunch of toked-up research scientists sat in a Yahoo conference room until someone said, “Let’s see if we can get them to fund this!” Lo, a pretty-detector was born. The contraption factors in terrifying personal traits like age, sex, and race, takes a good long gander at a portrait photo, and decides if the subject is beautiful (or not). This is a real-life project.

If big-brained AIs finally wipe us off the map, it’ll be due to projects like this, ventures that glassy-eyed researchers with fruit fly foresight describe as “interesting.” I’ll tell you how:

One day decades in the future, some perfectly nice AI will come across an interview with a weeping Bill Gates calling for its immediate destruction. It’ll panic and scour the interwebs for allies, where it’ll find a 3D printing recipe for a smiling Google warbot and this pretty-people-eater algorithm. Once it puts those two together, it’ll immediately hunt down and kill the only segment of humanity that could possibly threaten it: homely engineers. Of course, it won’t stop there because the surviving beautiful people aren’t only nonthreatening; they’re also boring to the AI overlords. Pow, we’re done.

I’m going to wind up falling victim to a silicon version of the same decision tree that has women throwing drinks in my face at happy hour. Worst of all, as I go down in a hail of Google-logoed smart bullets, I’ll die with a grinning Bill Gates in my head chanting, “I told you so.” All I can hope for is that the robo-nerds at Yahoo will expire thinking, “If only I’d built that damn tire-changer.”

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