Self-Owning Computers Can Beat ‘Skynet’ – Mike Hearn on the Internet of Things (Op-Ed)

The Terminator film series gave us a harrowing vision of a future of total surveillance and conflict – one facilitated by artificial intelligence created by a war-waging state.

With technology advancing at ever-faster rates, is it time to seriously consider the prevention of a kind of the film's aggressor, Skynet?

And if so, how?

Create useful machines that own themselves, says developer and futurist Mike Hearn. And program them to earn their “livings” in bitcoin.

Not So Science Fiction

As a current – not hypothetical – example, Hearn references the self-driving car in his Turing Festival 2013 lecture. At the time, Hearn was working for Google (before he left to instead focus on Bitcoin), and so had personal knowledge of what autonomous agents are capable of.

He used as his example their ability to act as taxi cabs, which Google and Uber are already said to be developing.

But Hearn expressed fears that if individuals don't take their tech into their own hands, the future of ground transportation – which Hearn argues is self-driving cars – will be owned by cartelized corporations (like Google and Uber). He says:

“Even when people have designed decentralized technologies, what you get is a winner-takes-all environment where one or two big Silicon Valley start-ups spend their way to dominance and then become entrenched.”

To prevent corporations from cartelizing technologies, Hearn says they shouldn't be owned by people. The machines, he says, should instead own themselves:

“The autonomous agent idea is almost a reaction against the current trend. Perhaps the solution is actually more technology and radical decentralization.”

The Internet of Things Can Employ You

This scenario, of course, leaves one glaring question. If the Internet of Things (IoT) comes – if machines doing all the driving, cleaning, scheduling, flying, whatever – what will people do?

Hearn says that there will be plenty left for people to do. Just like current machines, the machines of the future will still need upgrades.

In Hearn's vision, the machines would set aside some of the bitcoin that they earn by serving humans, and then use that bitcoin to hire humans to give them the upgrades they need to remain competitive with other machines.

Creepy or Captivating?

The idea of machines that don't exactly answer to anyone may at first seem unsettling. But, Hearn reminds his audience, one must remember that the machines he's talking about don't have artificial intelligence. They're not self-aware and creative like Skynet was. They're really just sophisticated forms of the computer you're using right now. Hearn adds:

"The funny thing about a car that owns itself is that we can encode whatever rules we like into its software […]. We can make it the most moral, socially minded capitalist possible."

Which leads to the programming question: who, exactly, will program the Internet of Things? Will it be malicious actors bent on surveilling the world, like the NSA or GCHQ? Or will it be peace-loving people who just want their privacy?

Open Source is a Given

And that may be the clincher of Hearn's vision: that machines software can and should be open source. He says:

“One interesting thing computers can do is prove to a third party what software they are running... [they] would be the most transparent business partner.”

Maybe software – which isn't unpredictable, prone to unexplained error, and just plain fickle like us humans – will pave the path to peace and privacy.

What do you think?

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