Courtesies Among The Machine Classes

We are building our smart machines and interfaces to be courteous when they interact with us. That doesn't mean they won't drive us over a cliff, snap our arm with a handshake, or invest our money horribly in the stock market but at least they will be cordial as they do so.

There is some interesting progress here especially in the domain of natural language:


Reinforcement learning is a good method of teaching machines turning morals and behaviours into a game for machines to learn.   The Office of Naval Research in the US is working with researchers at Georgia Tech to program robots with human morals using a software program called the “Quixote system.” Of course we have the whole human corpus in the form of books, films and the web as training data but how do we make sure that they use childrens TV and not the horror of humanity presented on the nightly news?

Further, building that courtesy into the machines shouldn't all be one way. As we interact more with these machines in increasingly deeper ways we need to make sure we don't lose important aspects of our humanity.

But what about courtesies between machines? Does the concept even make sense and if so then what might the value of being polite be in machine society?  

Maybe like us they will judge one another based on some social stratification. Simulation models designed to imitate us in the form of commerce dynamics use models that factor in social class and strata into interaction dynamics for each AI agent developed.  See Multi-agent simulation of virtual consumer populations in a competitive market But these are human models and values applied to agents representing and for the most part not autonomous agents acting in the real world.

However, these simulations are starting to creep out into the real world. Simulations offer the chance to test high volume training in a virtual world and then translate that learning to our physical world. Driverless cars is one example here with Grand Theft Auto already being used to do just that. Courtesy, however, is up for debate here. Some models actively factor in courtesy for lane changing and parking protocols but many consumers fear that human courtesy will be abused by the machines - seizing on this inefficient fraility -  putting an end to road etiquette altogether.

In the mid term the machines will use our models of courtesy but in the long term they will likely develop their own models making us like tentative explorers trying not to upset the natives every time we talk to them.   

Intergarden Biohazard

Nanotechnology ("nanotech") is manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. It's super tiny computing in the realm of 1 to 100 nanometers.  The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in his talk 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom' seeded a whole lot of activity in this area. Feynman lectures are legendary - check them out here

Nanotech promises new possibilities for energy consumption, a cleaner environment, wondrous health applications and reduced costs while doing so. Nanotech is small, cheap, light, highly functional and requires much less energy and materials than traditional manufacturing. It's in use today for materials and coatings, drug delivery and medicine, enhancing the flavour of food and in electronics design.

However there is one branch of nanotech that gives us the major fear - self replicating nanotechnology. When nanotech self assembles things can get out of hand pretty quickly and one memorable illustration of this is called the 'grey goo' hypothesis. It's where out of control self replicating nanotech robots consume all the biomass on earth for raw materials to build more and more of themselves turning our lovely green planet, and us, into grey computing slop. Grey goo is the ultimate boundary breaker. 

Technology continues to challenge our sense of boundaries:

  • what is public and what is private?

  • where does work end and personal life begin?

  • should we afford rights to smart machines?

  • does data derived from data need the same ownership and privacy rights? 

Today, robotics, chatbots, drones, social media and mixed reality are all pushing our ideas of boundaries. Nanotech too will force us to reassess the gaps and layers between our native physical world and the synthetic one we intersperse with it.

Prepare for debates on keeping the ammonia eating nanotech inside the nappy bin, keeping the dead skin eaters confined to our own bodies and maybe even keeping our nanotech lawn from shutting in the neighbours.