Why I dread the thought of benign algorithms

Feel free to use this article as a basis for discussion with your pupils.

Too protective by half?

Too protective by half?

Ray Kurzweil predicted that:

“The technological singularity occurs as artificial intelligences surpass human beings as the smartest and most capable life forms on the Earth. Technological development is taken over by the machines, who can think, act and communicate so quickly that normal humans cannot even comprehend what is going on. The machines enter into a “runaway reaction” of self-improvement cycles, with each new generation of A.I.s appearing faster and faster. From this point onwards, technological advancement is explosive, under the control of the machines, and thus cannot be accurately predicted (hence the term “Singularity”).”


This idea is sometimes used by people to predict that machines, having no further use for us, will decide to get rid of us once and for all.

But what if intelligent computers decide, instead, to look after us, and protect us from ourselves?

For example, if we extrapolate from the existence of driverless cars, will there come a time when we won’t be able to drive — because either our laws or our machines won’t allow us to? No doubt the number and severity of road accidents would be cut, which would be an advantage. But what about those of us who not only enjoy driving, but are pretty good at it?

What would be good, I think, would be to introduce a law whereby passing your driving test isn’t enough — mainly because if our cars won’t let us drive then driving tests are irrelevant. However, for those of us willing to put the time and effort into undertaking — and passing — an advanced driving course, there should be a dispensation of some sort. That is to say, such people should be permitted to drive if they wish.

Can you imagine the furore on social media about such 'discrimination', the 'nanny state' and so on?

This is just one area in which the singularity might be characterised by computers being so protective of us that life is simply not lived to the full.

We can glean some feeling of this from what is already happening with kids. In 2015 I watched a tv series called Back in Time for the Weekend, in which a typical British family spends a week living through a previous decade.

During their period in the 1960s (I think), the youngest, who is about 12, said that he had been allowed to play in the park with his friends, without his parents around, for the first time in his life. An article in the Daily Mail newspaper in 2013 bears this out:

“Half of adults played outside at least seven times a week when they were growing up — but less than a quarter of children are allowed as much freedom today.”


Imagine being in the situation where your kitchen won’t allow you to rustle up an egg in case you burn yourself, your car won’t allow you to drive to the shops to get the eggs in the first place, and if you try to contact a few friends to invite them over for an eggy breakfast your computerised contacts system won’t allow you to because sometimes they wind you up and raise your blood pressure.

There used to be a programme called Sliders on tv, in which the central characters moved temprorarily into alterntive versions of their own universe. In one such variant, fast food restaurants woudn't serve you a hamburger unless you could produce a medical certificate stating that you were fit enough (in terms of heart, cholesterol etc) to eat it.

At least there you would have the option of threatening the vendor (if you're that way inclined) or attempting to bribe him (ditto), but how do you circumvent orders dictated by a computer following an algorithm?

An earlier version of this article was originally published on the ICT & Computing and Medium websites. For more discussion points to use in your classroom, sign up for Digital Education, my free newsletter.