Welcome to the Machine
by Jim Amrhein
by Jim Amrhein
Welcome to the machine.
Where have you been?
It's all right – we know where you've been...
~ Pink Floyd, "Welcome to the Machine" (1975)
visions of where we're headed, forget the economists, philosophers,
historians, politicos – and especially climatologists (30 years
ago, they predicted an impending ice age, for Pete's sake). It's
only every once in a while that they get something right about what's
waiting for us around the corner...
But for my
money, society's real seers are the novelists and short story writers.
Look at how
today's America mirrors Aldous Huxley's vision in Brave
New World of a hedonistic, classist, high-tech future world
where consumerism is civic duty – and where relentless promiscuity
and legalized drug use (the author's euphoria-inducing "soma" equating
to modern-day Prozac, Percocet, OxyContin, etc.) are standard measures
of what's normal and healthy...
See how Vonnegut's
vision of a 2081 U.S. government that codifies and enforces equality
in the brilliantly comedic Harrison
Bergeron resonates in both the modern American education
system and its tax code – both of which punish or ignore excellence,
while overlooking or rewarding failure and mediocrity...
H.G. Wells' The
Island of Dr. Moreau foreshadowed Nazism, eugenics, and
the human genetic meddling and embryonic selection (now called pre-natal
"health screening" – but, perhaps soon, prenatal "enhancement")
we're increasingly accepting as a normal part of reproduction...
And of course,
everyone's aware of how American society is creeping evermore toward
a PC surveillance state, where both privacy and dissention are borderline
criminal – à la the "Thought Police" and "Big Brother" from Orwell's
But as unsettlingly
accurate as these quasi-prophecies have proved, what's next for
America may be even more terrifying: A dehumanized cyber-world more
akin to Asimov's I,
about a world where robots – and I'm considering any combination
of hardware and software that can detect, assess, and classify human
actions or events as such a machine – compete directly with humans,
and where the most critical decisions in our society are increasingly
made by artificial intelligence.
it's already beginning.
past Whiskey & Gunpowder essays, I've written about
the explosion of warrant-less civilian surveillance in our society
in the wake of Sept. 11. Cameras are everywhere nowadays – in the
store, at the ATM machine, in the bank, on bridges over the highway,
in cops' cars, on street corners, at stoplights, in parking garages,
at the airport, and on almost everybody's cellular phone.
so that you can't steal a smooch (or whatever) from your lover at
a stoplight anymore for fear of some bored government employee in
some office with beige-painted cinderblock walls zooming in on you
to get his kicks. Not that this is currently happening in "real
time" whenever you're at a stoplight. As it stands, footage from
the cameras that watch us in intersections and on street corners
usually only gets looked at in review – to better gather facts in
case a crime has been committed. But using the stoplights as an
example: What if a car runs the light in the other direction right
when you're in some manner in flagrante delicto? The shutters
snap from every direction and...
on (very) candid camera.
Same with changing
your clothes in a parked car outside the mall (who hasn't done this
at least once?) or hurriedly stuffing a chili dog into your face
while walking down the street on your way to some meeting. All it
takes is for the wrong thing to happen in the foreground while you're
in the background and your mug (or again, your whatever) is on display
in some crime lab, court room, and no doubt someday on the Internet.
The point being
this: Awkward, vulnerable or risqué moments happen in any
life worth living – and now, they're happening on camera...
It isn't just
the population centers, public areas, and highways that are under
round-the-clock surveillance in America, either. Space-based satellite
imaging covers every square inch of this country – albeit with varying
degrees of resolution. However, that's all but certain to soon change.
I don't know if you've heard about this or not (it hasn't made the
headlines in any mainstream information outlet that I know of),
but just over a year ago, Lockheed Martin landed a $149 million
contract to study the overall feasibility and to produce a prototype
of its High Altitude Airship (HAA), known as a stratospheric platform
part of a missile defense system, the feds are planning to soon
have 11 or more of these in constant flight at around 70,000 feet
blanketing the entire U.S. with real-time, high-resolution surveillance.
Each one of these unmanned behemoth blimps would be about 20 times
the size of the one Goodyear floats over football games, and would
monitor a patch of American soil 750 miles in diameter – with cameras
that are no doubt capable of detail many times greater than those
I could find no specs on these. However, I'm certain that given
the resolution of current space-based lenses, these cameras would
easily be able to discern fine detail like individual human faces,
license plates, etc. Which means forget about pulling over to the
side of a remote stretch of highway for a quick whiz or that midnight
skinny-dip in the pool at your condo complex. They'll be able to
identify you by your birthmarks, tattoos – or, uh, dimensions. But
The point of
me rehashing all that's old and new in the arena of today's questionably
constitutional monitoring of American citizens is to get to what's
every bit as disturbing as the omnipresence of prying eyes: the
fact that robot technology may soon allow Big Broth – er, I mean
the government – to CONSTANTLY MONITOR these channels in
"real time," instead of simply reviewing images after the fact in
an evidentiary capacity.
This is bad.
You may remember
a surprise semi-blockbuster movie from a few years back (1987) called
Although this movie's "bad guy" was actually a mega-corporation
that effectively privatized the police for its own ends – the "good
guy" was someone who really resonated with audiences: a robotic
cop who doled out justice without fear, emotion, prejudice, vice,
corruption, or ulterior motives.
In other words,
he was the ideal enforcer.
But of course,
this was just a movie. The reality behind the likely progression
of robotic justice is far less cheer-worthy. Tomorrow's robocops
will not be armed enforcers, just omni-prying watchers. And they
won't be infallible...
a recent Reuters article, "intelligent video" is the next big development
in law enforcement surveillance. Basically, this is cutting-edge
computer software that'll be employed by various agencies of the
government from the local police on up to monitor everyday actions
– picked up 24/7 by both cameras and microphones – in order to identify
and sound the alarm about "suspicious" behaviors.
Yes, you read
that right: Soon, everything you do AND SAY in almost any public
setting could be filmed, taped, and checked by artificial intelligence
against a list of behaviors and speech that a bunch of pointy-headed
G-men have determined are threats to public safety or national security.
loitering, circling a location, or walking away from a package –
or simply uttering words like "bomb" or "explosive" – would constitute
alarm-worthy actions in the eyes of intelligent video, according
to the Reuters piece.
if you've made three low passes over that watch in the jewelry store
window over the span of an evening's shopping, the fuzz might just
swarm down on you on pass number four...
And if you
say to your friend in the food court that those delicious Cinnabons
– or those women three tables over who are eating them in seemingly
orgasmic ecstasy – are "the bomb," the Men in Black might take you
And if you
accidentally drive away without that "Sharper Image" bag you set
on the ground as you fumbled for your keys in the parking lot, the
copters might descend on you with their huge spotlights on your
the hell out of me about this isn't simply the fact that we may
soon be watched and scanned with high-performance computer technology
– that's already happening every time we go to the airport. Like
most Americans, I'm willing to submit to this because heightened
airport security is certainly called for in the post-Sept. 11 world.
Besides, everyone who flies knows what to expect when they go to
board a plane nowadays. It's not the same thing at the local mall.
No, what bothers
me about this Orwellian inevitability is that machines will be making
the call about what constitutes probable cause for detention, search,
or arrest. Now, I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that this standard
has been shifting lately from meaning roughly "a reasonable suspicion
that a crime has been committed" to more or less meaning "anything
that could indicate a crime might soon be committed."
Do we want
it for a minute. Errors made by human cops in the establishment
of probable cause can be remedied or nullified in court. Cops can
be cross-examined for prejudicial behavior and interpretations of
their words and actions can be disputed, records can be expunged,
and reputations restored if a person is found to have been wrongfully
(or at least unlawfully) detained...
But how would
people secure justice when these prying robotic eyes made the wrong
call and sounded a false alarm? Would innocent people wrongfully
detained on some machine's say-so be able to get justice in courts?
Who would people
be able to sue for wrongful arrest? How would one sue a machine
for damages? Would the accountability fall to the software engineer
– or to the agency that implemented the system?
What if a surveillance machine "learned" to profile people based
on race or ethnicity, or other discriminatory factors? Machines
know nothing of political correctness, you know...
Or would they
have to be designed to overlook perfectly logical criteria that
typically fall under the heading of "profiling"? More critically,
how could this be done in a way that would be unassailable in court?
And if it were
done, how could that machine's judgment then be considered impartial?
We would have TAUGHT it to be partial...
Oh, and what
about this: Once we make the jump to machines deciding what constitutes
probable cause, will human cops still be allowed to do this on their
own in places where the cameras aren't looking? Or will their judgment
– as nonmachines – all of a sudden be considered less than partial
or credible in the eyes of the law?
In other words:
Will cops ultimately be prohibited from making arrests unless a
machine "sees" a crime (or the likelihood of one) and gives them
one way that "intelligent video" could be legitimized...
if Americans resigned themselves to the necessity of it and were
willing to submit to the supposed impartiality of machines in yet
another invasion of our privacy and subversion of our rights.
we'll do it.
will tout the system as an end to wrongful arrests, when, in fact,
it could be the beginning to many more of them. They'll say the
impartiality of machines will make the criminal justice system less
corrupt and less prone to abuses and brutality – by making it less
vulnerable to the prejudices of individual cops...
it to us on the grounds that it'll make our streets, roads, shopping
centers, and neighborhoods safer without draining the public coffers
on more police...
it could foil terrorist attacks by spotting suspicious behavior
patterns mere humans could never detect (but without profiling,
And once more,
we'll cave and sacrifice yet another huge chunk of our freedom and
privacy on the altar of safety and security. The fact that we might
be trading one kind of danger for another won't even enter into
the equation. Like they always do, the machines will have become
the catalyst for seismic change, and we'll be left with the aftermath,
which is always the same:
and the illusion of more security.
For those of
you who think I'm a nut case for extrapolating all of this, I want
you to think about something for me:
Just six years
ago, it probably would've been inconceivable to you – and very likely
an outrage – that soon your face would be photographed, computer-enhanced,
recorded, and checked against a database of criminals while you
were waiting to pass through what at that time must've seemed like
a cumbersome and inconvenient amount of security (a simple metal
detector) before boarding an airplane...
And 12 years
ago, it would've seemed unlikely to you that in the near future,
cameras at stoplights and on highways would be clicking away and
issuing you tickets for traffic violations without ever involving
an officer of the law...
friend of mine…
He works in
the financial industry, lives in a well-appointed, relatively new
home in an idyllic suburb of a booming Maryland city, is married
to a lovely, charming woman, and has an adorable year-old son. He’s
from a fine, relatively soap-opera-free family in which there are
no head cases or drug addicts, and in which everyone’s educated
and more or less gainfully employed.
He works out
at the gym several times a week, drives a Lexus, and plays golf
or goes clay-bird shooting when he gets a chance. Like most people,
he’s saving too little and juggling his fair share of debt. Bottom
line: I consider this friend of mine reasonable, sane, and well
adjusted – and very likely quite representative of the typical middle-class
by a surprising amount of the reader mail we got in response to
Part 1 of this series, my friend is VERY typical in the sense that
he doesn’t mind if everything he does and everywhere he goes is
recorded and scrutinized by the eyes of law enforcement. He’s not
the least bit worried about living his life on camera.
not a criminal," he said over lunch recently. "I have
nothing to hide, so what do I have to fear from being on camera?"
friend of mine is a reasonable man, and his thinking is reasonable
– given one very UNreasonable (yet seemingly universal) supposition…
That our safety
is the only aim of our government’s omni-prying eyes.
A little more
than a year and a half ago (Whiskey & Gunpowder, June
15, 2005), I wrote about the absurd number of laws that govern every
aspect of our lives. There are literally tens of thousands of pages
of legislation that we don’t know we’re violating until we’re caught
running afoul of it…
Now, stay with
me here. The vast majority of laws are typically punishable by fines,
not incarceration – which means that lawbreaking is a major source
of revenue for all levels of government. This is no great revelation,
but it does explain WHY there are tens of thousands of pages of
laws we’ll never know about until we’re caught breaking them. It’s
part of a vast revenue and control machine, the bottom line of which
guilty of something. We just don’t know it until after the fact.
Or more accurately, until we get the bill. There are literally so
many laws that one cannot help but break a bunch of them. I’ve even
seen cases of laws that contradict each other – so that no matter
what you do, you’re a criminal.
in the eyes of the court ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking
it (if you ask me, it’s the ONLY valid excuse), all it takes for
the revenue machine to grind onward is for an appropriate agent
of authority who knows which laws we’re breaking to see/catch/detect
us in the act, and we’re slapped with a fine that goes directly
into Big Brother’s pocket.
The only thing
currently protecting us from being nickel-and-dimed to death with
fines for our inadvertent lawlessness is the fact that there aren’t
enough cops, IRS auditors, ATF agents, etc. that actually know all
the laws who are in a position to catch us every time we accidentally
break one of them…
very few people in positions of authority really know much about
the law. The average cop on the street, for instance, has a very
poor grasp of it. The example of this I love to cite is the one
about the pocketknife. Here it is, excerpted from my June 15, 2005,
a dozen or more police officers this very simple question: Is it
legal to carry a knife? I got the following answers, or variations
3) Yes, as long as it’s concealed.
4) Yes, as long as it’s NOT concealed.
5) Not for the purpose of self-defense, only for utility.
6) Yes, as long as the blade isn’t more than 2 inches long.
7) Yes, as long as the blade isn’t more than 3 inches long.
8) Yes, as long as the blade isn’t more than 4 inches long.
9) Yes, as long as it is a folding knife, and not spring-loaded
or of a "butterfly" configuration (whatever that means).
10) Yes, as long as it would not be construed by any police officer
as a threat during a routine search (this is entirely subjective,
What’s so ironic
is that citizens’ ignorance of the law is NOT an excuse for breaking
it, yet enforcers’ ignorance of the law is the very thing that keeps
many of us from routinely being caught breaking it! Right now, only
two things give us a safety net against an unwitting career in crime
– or a bankruptcy at the hands of petty fines:
- The fact
that the mere mortals that enforce laws can’t keep track of the
hundreds of thousands of them that govern us.
- The eyes
of authority aren’t on us frequently enough to catch us breaking
the million or so laws we don’t know about.
the $64 trillion question:
will this dynamic change once the detection of unlawful behavior
is no longer the job of humans – but officially delegated to omnipresent,
camera-eyed, software-brained, mega-memoried robots that CAN keep
track of thousands of laws simultaneously?
Think we won’t
all of a sudden find out just how inadvertently criminal we really
are – even those of us who "have nothing to hide"? Think
we won’t find out very quickly just how many ways our elected officials
have legislatively transformed us from upstanding citizens into
If you think
I’m nuts, just consider the ways in which this is already happening.
Cameras on highways and at stoplights are handling the enforcement
of moving violations now, instead of flesh-and-blood cops. Think
this isn’t aimed purely at revenue creation – or do you really believe
it’s about safer roads?
If things go
the way they’re shaping up, it won’t be long until robots are calling
in the cavalry on us – or simply mailing us fines and citations
– for all kinds of stuff we’d never have known or imagined we were
And we’ll be
lucky if it doesn’t bankrupt or ruin every one of us.
One of the
more disturbing aspects of this coming quagmire is something I touched
on earlier in this essay: the likelihood that soon, robots (camera-equipped
computers) will be making the determination of what constitutes
suspicious behavior. Basically, they’ll decide what warrants the
scrutiny/investigation of a law enforcement officer under the "probable
me because it’s possible that robotic surveillance from all sources
may NOT fall under the same regulatory control as manned surveillance
by humans. Again, I’m no lawyer, but this seems to me to be uncharted
It’s currently illegal for the police, FBI, etc. to set up targeted
surveillance on any American without a court order or similar official
permission (which isn’t to say this kind of thing doesn’t happen
anyway). In other words, there’s a legal process that has to take
place before anything other than generalized surveillance can occur…
the line demarcating "generalized" surveillance is creeping
toward "omnipresent" surveillance – especially with the
approaching implementation of HAA (High Altitude Airship) technology.
Soon, the government’s people-watching activities won’t be confined
to street corners with a history of drug dealing or potential terrorist
targets like train stations or busy shopping centers. It’ll be EVERYWHERE.
What I’m wondering
is this: Once the monitoring duties are transferred to robots, are
the legal limitations on when and where we can be peeped on still
valid? Think about this for a minute. If heartless, soulless, emotionless
machines, instead of real people, are watching us – complete with
their fantasies and agendas and corrupt urges and senses of humor
– does this constitute any unconstitutional breach of privacy rights?
way: Can MACHINES invade a person’s privacy – especially if they’re
programmed to block all external access to their images and call
in the cavalry only if they detect crimes being planned or committed?
that the feds would argue no.
By virtue of
their lack of humanity, I’m betting it will one day be determined
that robots could watch us in every room of our houses, every moment
of the day, and never invade our privacy in the eyes of the law
– as long as we don’t do anything illegal (this is easier in some
states than others)…
we did do something that met some cyber-definition of "probable
cause" for illegality, the cops these robots summon would have
every right to invade our privacy based on that determination.
an interesting question: What if, upon a court’s review, a surveillance
machine were found to have misinterpreted innocent actions and wrongfully
determined probable cause – yet the cops that busted in the door
found evidence of law-breaking anyway?
say you and your teenage son start roughhousing in the clubroom
downstairs. You’re trying to teach him wrestling moves you used
to pin people with in college. He’s using his youth and surprising
speed to slip away from you. You’re having a grand old male bonding
session, the likes of which are all too rare these days…
All of a sudden,
the cops bust down the front door. It seems that your innocent horseplay
was watched through a small basement window and misread as child
abuse by the robot on the telephone pole outside your home. You’re
detained until a representative of Social Services arrives and interrogates
the process of sorting out the mistake and establishing your innocence,
the cops in your home – called there justifiably by a machine, mind
you – spot a dog without a license lounging on the hearth (a stray
your daughter brought home a month ago) and an antique firearm over
your mantle without a trigger lock on it.
to you, these are violations of the law. Punishable by FINES.
is: Are these crimes "fruits of the poison tree" since
the robot made the wrong call on probable cause? Or are they still
prosecutable under the "plain sight" standard? How do
you think your state’s courts would rule on this, given the fact
that a lot of money in fines hangs in the balance?
you, what’s coming is yet another legal and financial quagmire for
ordinary people and a bonanza of cash for governments.
not even the worst wrinkle in the coming "eye, robot"
Lest you think
I’m either a closet criminal or just a militia-joining paranoiac,
let me share with you what I’m most afraid of, should (when) omnipresent
robotic surveillance become a reality…
It’s not getting
caught and fined to death for laws I unknowingly break that really
worries me. Nor is it being filmed in embarrassing or compromising
positions and having these images somehow reach the Internet or
some government database.
No, what I’m
really worried about is that, if we accept or rationalize the necessity
that everything we do is being watched and scrutinized, we’ll inevitability
stop doing the right thing simply for its own sake.
do it out of fear of being seen doing the wrong thing.
this for a second. It’s easy to do what’s right when someone’s watching.
What’s hard – and what leads to character, honor, and all the other
things good people (and good leaders) should be made of – is doing
the right thing when NOBODY is looking.
And if we’re
on camera every minute, we’ll no longer have a need for such inner
integrity. Doing what’s right will be simply an exercise in hassle-free
living, not an impulse that comes from within. So we won’t teach
integrity to our kids or develop it for ourselves anymore. We’ll
only teach them how to avoid appearing guilty of anything on camera…
The most laughable
and terrifying irony of all is that when this happens, we will have
become the robots, and the robots us! We’ll have literally switched
will have become pseudo-citizens in the sense that they’ll be making
more and more of society’s most crucial decisions (like determining
probable cause for arrest). And citizens will have become robot-like,
in that they’re no longer directed from within by their hearts,
consciences, and sensibilities – but from without by the need to
integrate themselves with the dictates and perceptions of a cyber-system.
In this world,
we won’t wrestle and tickle and roughhouse with our kids anymore,
for fear of drawing child abuse charges…
We won’t make
love any way but "by the book," lest our rambunctious
role-playing be construed as domestic violence…
We won’t make
more than one pass over that engagement ring in the store window,
for fear of being seen as casing the place…
We won’t leave
that box of clothes and blankets on the street corner where the
homeless guys congregate every night, for fear our "abandoned
parcel" would trigger a bomb alert…
In other words,
we’ll be programmed (literally) not to do anything spontaneous or
nutty or risky or gutsy or sexy or romantic or valiant or compassionate
or humorous or creative or HUMAN anymore, for fear that the machines
will see it as criminal in their literal ones-and-zeros minds.
I don’t know
about you, but that’s a reality I’ll risk any terrorist plot, any
drunk driver, any hazardous neighborhood, any crazed mall gunman,
any sexual predator, any crime of passion, or any serial killer
to avoid living in…
my life isn’t discernibly human, what’s the point of protecting
[send him mail]
is contributing editor to Whiskey
© 2007 Whiskey & Gunpowder