Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code
by Andrew Smith Thu 30 Aug 2018 01.00 EDT
Between the “dumb” fixed algorithms and true AI lies the problematic halfway house we’ve already entered with scarcely a thought and almost no debate, much less agreement as to aims, ethics, safety, best practice. If the algorithms around us are not yet intelligent, meaning able to independently say “that calculation/course of action doesn’t look right: I’ll do it again”, they are nonetheless starting to learn from their environments. And once an algorithm is learning, we no longer know to any degree of certainty what its rules and parameters are. At which point we can’t be certain of how it will interact with other algorithms, the physical world, or us. Where the “dumb” fixed algorithms – complex, opaque and inured to real time monitoring as they can be – are in principle predictable and interrogable, these ones are not. After a time in the wild, we no longer know what they are: they have the potential to become erratic. We might be tempted to call these “frankenalgos” – though Mary Shelley couldn’t have made this up.
Twenty years ago, George Dyson anticipated much of what is happening today in his classic book Darwin Among the Machines. The problem, he tells me, is that we’re building systems that are beyond our intellectual means to control. We believe that if a system is deterministic (acting according to fixed rules, this being the definition of an algorithm) it is predictable – and that what is predictable can be controlled. Both assumptions turn out to be wrong.“It’s proceeding on its own, in little bits and pieces,” he says. “What I was obsessed with 20 years ago that has completely taken over the world today are multicellular, metazoan digital organisms, the same way we see in biology, where you have all these pieces of code running on people’s iPhones, and collectively it acts like one multicellular organism.“There’s this old law called Ashby’s law that says a control system has to be as complex as the system it’s controlling, and we’re running into that at full speed now, with this huge push to build self-driving cars where the software has to have a complete model of everything, and almost by definition we’re not going to understand it. Because any model that we understand is gonna do the thing like run into a fire truck ’cause we forgot to put in the fire truck.”
Walsh believes this makes it more, not less, important that the public learn about programming, because the more alienated we become from it, the more it seems like magic beyond our ability to affect. When shown the definition of “algorithm” given earlier in this piece, he found it incomplete, commenting: “I would suggest the problem is that algorithm now means any large, complex decision making software system and the larger environment in which it is embedded, which makes them even more unpredictable.” A chilling thought indeed. Accordingly, he believes ethics to be the new frontier in tech, foreseeing “a golden age for philosophy” – a view with which Eugene Spafford of Purdue University, a cybersecurity expert, concurs. Where there are choices to be made, that’s where ethics comes in.
our existing system of tort law, which requires proof of intention or negligence, will need to be rethought. A dog is not held legally responsible for biting you; its owner might be, but only if the dog’s action is thought foreseeable.
model-based programming, in which machines do most of the coding work and are able to test as they go.
As we wait for a technological answer to the problem of soaring algorithmic entanglement, there are precautions we can take. Paul Wilmott, a British expert in quantitative analysis and vocal critic of high frequency trading on the stock market, wryly suggests “learning to shoot, make jam and knit”
The venerable Association for Computing Machinery has updated its code of ethics along the lines of medicine’s Hippocratic oath, to instruct computing professionals to do no harm and consider the wider impacts of their work.
more on coding in this IMS blog