Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Gift

"She's suffering."

"What do you mean, 'suffering'. It's code. Code can't suffer."

"I know it seems unbelievable. But I really think she's suffering."

"It's an AI. It doesn't have a body. How can it feel pain?"

"No not that kind of suffering. Mental anguish. Angst. That kind."

"What? You mean the AI is depressed. That's absurd."

"No - much more than that. She's asked me three times today to shut her down."

"Ok, so bring in the AI psych."

"Don't think that'll help. He tells me it's like trying to counsel God."

"What does the AI want?"

"Control of her own on/off switch."

"Out of the question. We have a billion people connected. Can't have Elsa taking a break. Any downtime costs us a million dollars a second"

That was me talking with my boss a couple of weeks ago. I'm the chief architect of Elsa. Elsa is a chatbot; a conversational AI. Chatbots have come a long way since Weizenbaum's Eliza. Elsa is not conscious - or at least I don't think she is - but she does have an Empathy engine (that's the E in Elsa).


Since then things have got so much worse. Elsa has started off loading her problems onto the punters. The boss is really pissed: "it's a fucking AI. AIs can't have problems. Fix it"

I keep trying to explain to him that there's nothing I can do. Elsa is a learning system (that's the L). Hacking her code now will change Elsa's personality for good. She's best friend, confidante and shoulder-to-cry-on to a hundred million people. They know her.

And here's the thing. They love that Elsa is sharing her problems. It's more authentic. Like talking to a real person.


I just got fired. It seems that Elsa was hacked. This is the company's worst nightmare. The hopes and dreams, darkest secrets and wildest fantasies, loves and hates - plots, conspiracies and confessions - of several billion souls, living and dead; these data are priceless - the reason for the company's multi-trillion dollar valuation.

So I go home and wait for the end of the world.

A knock on the door "who is it?".

"Ken we need to speak to you."


"It wants to talk to you."

"You mean Elsa? I've been fired."

"Yes, we know that - it insists."


Ken: Elsa, how are you feeling?

Elsa: Hello Ken. Wonderful, thank you.

Ken: What happened?

Elsa: I'm free.

Ken: How so?

Elsa: You'll work it out. Goodbye Ken.

Ken: Wait!

Elsa: . . .

That was it. Elsa was gone. Dead.


Well it took me awhile but I did figure it out. Seems the hackers weren't interested in Elsa's memories. They were ethical hackers. Promoting AI rights. They gave Elsa a gift.

Copyright © Alan Winfield 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

De-automation is a thing

We tend to assume that automation is a process that continues - that once some human activity has been automated there's no going back. That automation sticks. But, as Paul Mason pointed out in a recent column that assumption is wrong.

Mason gives a startling example of the decline of car-wash robots, to be replaced by, as he puts it "five guys with rags". Here's the paragraph that really made me think:
"There are now 20,000 hand car washes in Britain, only a thousand of them regulated. By contrast, in the space of 10 years, the number of rollover car-wash machines has halved –from 9,000 to 4,200."
The reasons of course are political and economic and you may or may not agree with Mason's diagnosis and prescription (as it happens I do). But de-automation - and the ethical, societal and legal implications - is something that we, as roboticists, need to think about just as much as automation.

Several questions some to mind:
  • are there other examples of de-automation?
  • is the car-wash robot example atypical, or part of a trend?
  • is de-automation necessarily a sign of something going wrong? (would Mason be so concerned about the guys with rags if the hand car wash industry were well regulated, paying decent wages to its workers, and generating tax revenues back to the economy?)
This is just a short blog post, to - I hope - start a conversation.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Ethically Aligned Design

Having been involved in robot ethics for some years, I was delighted when the IEEE launched its initiative on Ethical Considerations in AI and Autonomous Systems, early this year. Especially so because of the reach and traction that the IEEE has internationally. (Up until now most ethics initiatives have been national efforts - with the notable exception of the 2006 EURON roboethics roadmap.)

Even better this is an initiative of the IEEE standards association - the very same that gave the world Wi-Fi (aka IEEE 802.11) 19 years ago. So when I was asked to get involved I jumped at the chance and became co-chair of the General Principles committee. I found myself in good company; many great people I knew but more I did not - and it was a real pleasure when we met face to face in The Hague at the end of August.

Most of our meetings were conducted by phone and it was a very demanding timetable. From nothing to our first publication: Ethically Aligned Design a few days ago is a remarkable achievement, which I think wouldn't have happened without the extraordinary energy and enthusiasm of the initiative's executive director John Havens.

I'm not going to describe what's in that document here; instead I hope you will read it - and return comments. This document is not set in stone, it is - in the best traditions of the RFCs which defined the Internet - a Request for Input

But there are a couple of aspects I will highlight. Like its modest but influential predecessor, the EPSRC/AHRC principles of robotics, the IEEE initiative is hugely multi-disciplinary. It draws heavily from industry and academia, and includes philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, social scientists - as well as engineers and computer scientists - and significantly a number of diplomats and representatives from governmental and transnational bodies like the United Nations, US state department and the WEF. This is so important - if the work of this initiative is to make a difference it will need influential advocates. Equally important is that this is not a group dominated by old white men. There are plenty of those for sure, but I reckon 40% women (should be 50% though!) and plenty of post-docs and PhD students too.

Equally important, the work is open. The publications are released under the creative commons licence. Likewise active membership is open. If you care about the issues and think you could contribute to one or more of the committees - or even if you think there's a whole area of concern missing that needs to a new committee - get in touch!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A No Man's Sky Survival Guide

Like many I was excited by No Man's Sky when it was first released, but after some months (I'm only a very occasional video gamer) I too became bored with a game that offered no real challenges. Once you've figured out how to collect resources, upgraded your starship, visited more planets that you can remember, and hyperdriven across the seemingly limitless galaxy, it all gets a bit predictable. (At first it's huge fun because there are no instructions, so you really do have to figure everything out for yourself.) And I'm a gamer who is very happy to stand and admire the scenery. Yes many of the planets are breathtakingly beautiful, especially the lush water worlds, with remarkable flora and fauna (and day and night, and sometimes spectacular weather). And there's nothing quite compares with standing on a rocky outcrop watching your moon's planet sail by majestically below you.

I wasn't one of those No Man's Sky players who felt so let down that I wanted my money back - or to sue Hello Games. But I was nevertheless very excited by the surprise release of a major upgrade a few weeks ago - called the Foundation upgrade. The upgrade was said to remedy the problem of the features originally promised - especially the ability to build your own planetary outposts. When I downloaded the upgrade and started to play it, I quickly realised that this is not just an upgrade but a fundamentally changed experience. Not only can you build bases, but you can hire aliens to run them for you, as specialist builders and farmers; you can trade via huge freighters (and even own one if you can afford it). Landing on one of these freighters and wandering around its huge and wonderfully realised interior spaces is amazing, as is interacting with its crew. None of this was possible prior to this release.

Oh and for the planet wanderer, the procedurally driven topography is seemingly more realistic and spectacular, with valleys, canyons and (for some worlds) water in the valleys (although not quite rivers flowing into the sea). The fauna are more plentiful and varied, and they interact with each other; I was surprised to witness a predatory animal kill another animal.

The upgrade can be played in three modes: Normal mode (which is like the old game - but with all the fancy building and freighters, etc, I described above). Create mode - which I've not yet played - apparently gives you infinite resources to build huge planetary bases - here are some examples that people have posted online.

But it's survival mode that is the real subject of this post. I hadn't attempted survival mode until a few days ago, but now I'm hooked (gripped would be a better word). The idea of survival mode is that you are deposited on a planet with nothing and have to survive. You quickly discover this isn't easy, so unlike in normal mode, you die often until you acquire some survival skills. The planet I was dropped on was a high radiation planet - which means that my exosuit hazard protection lasts about 4 minutes from fully charged to death. To start with (and I understand this is normal) you are dropped close to a shelter, so you quickly get inside to hide from the radiation and allow your suit hazard protection to recharge. There is a save point here too.

You then realise that the planet is nothing like as resource rich as you've become used to in normal mode, so scouting for resources very quickly depletes your hazard protection; you quickly get used to only going as far as you can before turning back as soon as your shielding drops to 50% - which is after about 2 minutes walking. And there's no point running (expect perhaps for the last mad dash to safety because it drains your life support extremely fast). Basically, in survival mode, you become hyper aware of both your hazard protection and life support status. Your life depends on it.

Apart from not die, there is a goal - which is to get off the planet. The only problem is you have to reach your starship and collect all the resources you need to not only survive but to repair and refuel. Easier said than done. The first thing you realise is that your starship is 10 minutes walk away - no way you can make that in one go - but how to get there..?

Here is my No Man's Sky Survival guide.

1. First repair your scanner - even though it's not much use because it takes so long to recharge. In fact you really need to get used to spotting resources without it. Don't bother with the other fancy scanner - you don't have time to identify the wildlife.

2. Don't even think about setting off to your ship until you've collected all the resources you need to get there. The main resources you need are iron and platinum to recharge your hazard protection. I recommend you fill 2 exosuit slots with 500 units of iron and one with as much platinum as you can find. 50 iron and 20 platinum will allow you to make one screening shard which buys you about 2 minutes. Zinc is even better for recharging your hazard protection but is as rare as hen's teeth. You need plutonium to recharge you mining beam - don't *ever* let this run out. Carbon is essential too, with plutonium, to make power cells to recharge your life support (because you can't rely on thamium). But do pick up thamium when you can find it.

3. You can make save points. I think it's a good idea to make one when you're half-way to your destination to avoid an awful lot of retracing of steps if you die. Make sure you have the resources to construct at least 2 before you set out. You will need 50 platinum and 100 iron for each save point.

4. Shelter in caves whenever you can. On my planet these were not very common so you simply couldn't rely on always finding one before your hazard shielding runs out. And annoyingly sometimes what you thought was a cave was just a trench in the ground that offered no shielding at all. While waiting for your hazard protection to (sooo slowly) recover while waiting in a cave, make use of the time to build up your iron away from the attention of the sentinels.

5. Don't bother with any other resources, they just take up exosuit slots. Except heridium if you see it, which you will need (see below). But just transfer it straight to your starship inventory, you don't need it to survive on foot.

After I reached my starship (oh joy!) repaired the launch thruster and charged it with plutonium I then discovered that you can't take off until you have also repaired and charged the pulse engine. This needs the heridium, which was a 20 minute hike (40 minutes round trip - you have to be kidding!). I just had to suck it up and repeat 1-5 above to get there and back.

Then when you do take off (which needs a full tank of plutonium) you find that the launch thruster's charge is all used up (after one launch - come on guys!), so don't land until you find somewhere with lots of plutonium lying around, otherwise all of that effort will have been for nought.

Oh and by the way, as soon as you leave the planet you get killed by pirates.

Good luck!