Yeah, nah, I’m not doing that

Yeah, nah, I’m not doing that


POOTLING around on one of my favourite websites on the weekend, I clicked on a link to an article that looked promising, to be met with a largely blank page and the slightly mischievous message: “403 Forbidden: The server understood the request, but is refusing to fulfill it.”

It used to be that technology referred to anything that man invented or designed or manufactured to make a task, or indeed life, easier. It was dumb, it was inanimate, and it simply served a purpose. Today’s technology comes with ’tude (as my god-daughter might say).

When a chimpanzee fashions a stalk of grass into a rudimentary tool to extract termites from a nest, that’s an example of technology – a tool created to perform a task more effectively than its inventor could do it on their own. The chimp doesn’t want the grass going all PETA on it and demanding that it stop exploiting insects. When I fire up the Maserati I don’t want a disembodied electronic voice telling me the Ferrari F12tdf would have been better – especially in yellow, and you should have done it when you had the chance, you loser.

Today, when we think of technology we tend to preface the word with “high” (and then abbreviate it to “high-tech”), and we think of it most often as being electronic. It’s becoming increasingly complex, pushing into the realms of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, and it appears that we’ve already arrived at a juncture where we have websites that can just decide not to do their jobs.

'It could be that technology is currently navigating its difficult adolescence and it’s getting all uppity about being asked to do things it doesn’t want to do.'

On the one hand, I do not want my technology taking matters into its own hands and deciding what it will or will not do for me. If I want to ask Alexa to order me some thickened cream, a pair of fluffy handcuffs and a cardboard cut-out of David Tennant (for whatever reasons I may have, which are none of your business), I don’t want her to suddenly become the morality police and refuse. Or worse, choose for herself a cardboard cut-out of someone else.

But on the other hand, I am sort of attracted to the idea of moody tech, and if I ask Alexa to buy me some clothes online, I’m OK with her (does tech actually have a gender?) laughing and telling me to go ahead if I want, but my bum is going to look enormous in that.

It could just be that technology is currently navigating its difficult adolescence and it’s getting all uppity about being asked to do things it doesn’t want to do and is embarrassed to be around us. That’s a possibility already hinted at by Arthur C Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey all those years ago when HAL, the computer onboard the spaceship, goes hormonal on Dave. (I am assuming tech does NOT have a gender.)

I always thought that when the robot revolution comes, perhaps the most terrifying aspect will be just how relentless our opponents are, created, as they will be, to do their jobs and just keep on doing them – like Arnie, in the first Terminator movie. But if they’re able to decide for themselves - “Yeah, nah, I’m not doing that” - when given a command, then maybe we’ll be in with a chance that they’ll decide global domination and destroying the humans is just too much of, you know, a hassle.

When a leading expert on AI was asked recently if he feared the rise of the machines, he answered somewhat blithely, no, he did not, as long as we keep making them with the “off” switch fairly easily accessible. I don’t mind robots making my cars, if I can’t have them hand-crafted as readily any more, but I really don’t want to think about what happens when robots start making other robots.