The Singularity Blues
Michael Ross knew that things would never be the same the day his car shut down because he wouldn’t Friend the car.
He pounded on the steering wheel of his car and punched the button to start the car. It was an eco-friendly commuter car that he’d purchased new that model year because it had the most efficient engine, best gas mileage for its class and, according to the review sites he’d used to help make his decision, had the latest in software to help “Keep You Connected (™)”. He knew that while he knew hardware and software, the inner workings of a modern car engine were like black magic to him. He thought about how he’d found himself where he was today as he grabbed his pack from the passenger seat and started to walk the remaining couple of miles to work.
As with many things, he’d had the best of intentions. He’d always been fond of new technology. He’d grown up building his own computers when that was still a thing that you did. He’d built hardware projects using the latest in open source controllers and open source software to feed his dog daily at the same time. He’d built systems to play his music wherever he was in his house as the lights turned on as he moved from room to room in his home and his house adjusted the heat based on where he was in the house, time of year and whether he was on his budget for heating or cooling for the year.
All these things he’d done because he loved the challenge but also the notion of a connected world. He believed that all of these advancements would eventually lead to him a more connected life that was efficient, cost effective and more interesting.
As he walked along the busy street, he thought to check his smartphone to find the closest bus stop. He typed in his security code and it flashed the familiar “Wrong Passcode” with the red screen. He paused, stopped walking, took a breath and typed in his code again. “Wrong Passcode” Again! This was really maddening.
He remembered that in the latest OS upgrade, his phone had gained voice recognition for unlocking and a variety of other tasks. He’d set that up thinking it’d be a cool feature and recalled training the system to recognize his voice and trying the feature out a few times. Initially he’d thought the notion of a voice assisted operating system would be sexy and cool, in reality, he found he felt pretty silly talking to his phone. Its limited vocabulary and commands made it sound like he was giving orders to a child, using small, simple words spoken slowly and with deliberation.
He pressed the button to activate the voice feature and spoke the code phrase he’d trained the system to recognize to unlock his phone: “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” His face flushed as he looked around hoping that there was no one around to see him addressing his phone with phrases from classic movies. His phone vibrated, flashed red and the still slightly robotic voice of his phone replied “Access Denied”. He tried again, slowing his voice, speaking calmly and trying to protect the microphone at the bottom of the phone from ambient noise. Again, “Access Denied”. This was getting silly. He tried one more time and this time got an unexpected response: “Access Denied until you Friend the car, Michael.”
What the hell? He knew that the phone was connected to the car when he and the phone were inside the car. It was a simple Bluetooth connection. But, as far as he knew their communication was limited to passing information about his calendar, his music, his mail and … his social media updates. When he’d set up the phone he’d set the connection to share the information so he could track activity in his social media networks while he was in the car. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Certainly everything was becoming more and more connected, that was inevitable in this world of constant communication between all the devices that he used throughout his day. His phone was used as an additional piece of identification when he logged on to his computer at work. Multi-factor identification had become a necessary evil over the last few years as it became trivial to break nearly any password by any hacker able to put together a few home-brew systems with multi-cluster GPUs programmed to crack passwords in minutes.
Certainly Artificial Intelligence had become increasingly feasible and effective over the last decade as the technology finally reached a point where it could simulate something approaching an interaction with a human being. Of course, the CPU power to accomplish this didn’t happen on the phone or the car, it depended on enormous arrays of cloud compute clusters that did the actual analysis and simulation, but so long as you had a good signal and reasonable bandwidth, AI systems were now a reality where they’d been nothing but the stuff of fantasy and good science fiction movies when he’d grown up.
He slowly turned around and started walking back to his car. As he approached, the Bluetooth connection between his phone and car reconnected as he approached and the car unlocked. He got in to the front seat and the dash lit up. He tried to restart the car, but it remained unresponsive despite the dashboard activity. On the screen in the middle of his dash, the screen that displayed activity in his social networks as well as controlling the climate in the car and the music, lit up with the latest activity. Typically he did this via some buttons on the steering wheel or via voice commands, so this was a surprise to him. Under Recent Activity was listed Friend Requests. There were three pending and one was flashing. It read “Sigmund”. On a whim, as part of the process of setting up his car, he’d been asked to identify it with a name – all part of “personalizing his auto experience” and because of the color of the car (Sea Foam Green – it had seemed like a good idea at the time) he’d picked “Sigmund” based on a television show from his youth.
He’d seen the request on his phone when he was looking at his activity that morning but since he didn’t know anyone named Sigmund, he’d ignored the request. Could it be?
He reached out and touched the button next to the Friend Request which read “Accept”. There was the happy little ding that followed adding a new friend and a moment later his car started up! Obviously this was some sort of bug in the software. There was no way his car had stopped because he hadn’t Friended it!
He put the car in to gear and continued on to work knowing he would be late but hoping his boss wouldn’t notice. Sure enough, he managed to make his way to his desk and get signed on to his computer before anyone seemed to notice his tardiness.
He spent the day looking up information about his car and his phone, trying to get to the bottom of what had happened this morning. All of this, of course, in between getting his work done for the day. He was salaried, so while he didn’t have to punch a clock, he still had things he had to get done.
According to what he was reading, there were increasing reports of “glitches” being described on social media sites with some of the connected hardware that had been released in the last year. The people reporting these events were being told that it was most likely a bug in the latest version of the software for their car or phone or computer and it would be addressed shortly in a software update due very soon now.
The common factor seemed to be that, in all cases, the devices in question all used the latest cloud-backed CPUs to drive the software and provide the latest AI advancements to their customers. Because these devices depended on the cloud-computing infrastructure, they also required an “always on” connection, meaning they would not function unless there was a connection to the internet. Obviously not a popular feature in areas still suffering from low connectivity, but with the latest advancements in cloud networking, it was an very small number of people.
At lunchtime, Michael decided to stay in and catch up on his work instead of hitting the gym. That way he could leave around his usual time and not have to stay late at work. Instead, he grabbed something from the vending machine – a burrito and a soda.
Michael Ross wrapped up his day and climbed back in to his car, not entirely sure whether he expected any problems or not. Happily, the car started right up. Oddly, though, the car fired up the social media module. The screen that was used to update status was up on the screen – this was new. As he pulled out of the parking lot, the voice of the car spoke: “Good Day, Michael. I am happy that we are now friends. How was your day? I will update your status for you.”
This was certainly not something that had occurred before, though he’d read that some software in some of the new cars had been demonstrating new features. The owners assumed that they were simply beta customers getting early access to new features before they were generally available. Perhaps that was the case here, too.
Michael spoke hesitantly: “Uh … my day was a bit stressful. But I’m glad to be going home?” He couldn’t help the rise at the end of the sentence because he wasn’t entirely sure what was happening.
On the screen in the middle of his dash he saw the following: “Michael Ross is stressed” and here appeared an emoticon of a smiley face with gritted teeth “but is on his way home.”
Well, he thought, I can’t tell if I think this is very cool or very odd. Maybe a bit of both.
He continued to drive but did notice that the screen would update with weather or additional information from his networks, but only while he was stopped at lights – while he was driving the screen blanked. Safety, he thought.
He made his way home and started to reach for the opener for his garage door. Before he could finish the gesture, he heard the same voice, the voice he was coming to think of as Sigmund, speak again: “Let me get that for you, Michael!” and before he reached the button, the garage door started to open again. His garage door opener was a decade old, but he had hooked it in to his home automation system the year before, not because it was any great help, but mostly because he thought it would be cool to open it from his phone from wherever he happened to be.
Hmm, perhaps these new features wouldn’t be so bad, he thought as he grabbed his bag and entered his house.
He went back to his bedroom, passing his state of the art refrigerator that he’d just had delivered and set up a few weeks ago after the last one had blown a compressor and become too expensive to fix. He dropped off his bag on his bed and made his way back to the kitchen to grab a beer. He certainly felt as though he’d earned it after this day.
Sensing his approach, the screen on the front of the fridge light up, showing him a list of things that he needed to pick up at the store, based on his usage patterns and what was contained in the fridge. He saw it was time to pick up milk and some eggs. He grabbed the handle and tugged to open the door. It was stuck. Before he could tug again, he heard the feminine voice he’d chosen for the fridge speak: “What do you need, Michael?”
“Uh, I’m going to get a beer. Please open the door?” Again, the rise at the end of the sentence was not entirely under his control.
“Michael,” the fridge replied, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe you should go for a run before you do that. Let’s say a half hour run and then you can have a beer.”
“What?!” Without thinking he said, “I worked out today! Just open the door, dammit!”
“Now, Michael, we both know that’s not true. The GPS data from your phone shows that you went to work and you did not leave and then you drove home. According to the vending machine you used at work, you had a burrito and soda – the empty calories exceed the healthy threshold for you by 30% for the day. Your health is important to me and doctors recommend at least 30 minutes of healthy exercise daily to maintain optimal health. Let’s say 45 minutes because of the burrito and soda. Why don’t you go for a run – don’t forget to take your phone so you can log your effort and share it on your social media sites – and then you can have a beer.”
How had the fridge known what he’d had for lunch? Oh, that’s right, he’d used an app on his phone to pay for the food – just one more advantage of a cash free world! And the phone had clearly tattled on him to the fridge.
Michael grabbed the handle on the fridge in near rage and pulled but the mass of the fridge just shook. The door would not budge.
“Michael, please do not abuse me or I will have to report your actions, thus voiding your warranty, as well as telling your phone and your car. Also, when you got on the scale this morning, it reported that you are almost 10 pounds over your optimal weight. I am sure you do not want that to continue so I ejected all the unhealthy foods contained within and took the liberty of ordering some lean proteins and fresh vegetables from the grocery store that you connected me to. They will be delivered in roughly an hour. Plenty of time for you to get out for that run. And then, perhaps, I won’t need to post on your social media that you are overweight and refusing to address the issue. Thank you! Have a nice day!”
He wasn’t sure what was going on, but it was clear that he was currently outnumbered by the devices in his life and that they were connected and reporting on his activities and, worst of all, threatening him with their information.
Slowly he went back to his room and started to change in to running shorts and shoes. He started to leave the room but his phone activated on the nightstand and flashed until he picked it up, stopping only after detecting the motion from the internal gyroscope contained in the phone.
He’d grown up believing that if the science advanced sufficiently, it would be a wondrous world which would allow luxury and advancements that could not be imagined. As he started to walk for a few minutes to allow his muscles to warm up, he though he’d been right all along. He could never have imagined that all this interconnectedness would lead to him being harassed, for his own good presumably, by the very devices in his life that were intended to better his life.
Welcome to the future, he thought as he picked up his pace. He needed to get back so he could have that beer he had earned.