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The Northern Spy: AI, aye, sir

The news of Jony Ives’ departure from Apple to lead his own design company cannot, despite iCook’s comments, have a positive spin put on it for Apple’s future. Each industry, each profession, each discipline has its practitioners and its leaders. 

A few of these have iconic founders–people who made themselves the sine qua non of an entire school of thought and practice. Modern technology design has Jony Ive’s signature all over it. His designs for computers, pads, phones, watches–everything that has made Apple the company it is–have been shamelessly copied across the industry. His departure from Apple at the end of 2019 marks the end of an era, a watershed for Apple, a tectonic shift for the whole high tech industry. Never a Yes man, he cannot be replaced, and Apple will be a poorer enterprise without him. No, the Spy does not know if he jumped or was pushed.

Yes, Apple will be one of Ive’s customers, but that’s not the same as his heading up the legendary skunk works as he has. Another sign post in the decline of Apple. Pity. Nice run while it lasted, but the creative spark, sputtering since the death of iSteve, seems extinguished as the company that once routinely initiated multiple technological revolutions while others merely slavishly copied, has become focused on the deathly mundane routine of iterative upgrades–adding verses to old songs instead of writing anything new.

True, there can only be one captain of the good spaceship Apple, and that captain is iCook. But what benefit a clear line of direction and efficient command when the wind is out of the sails? Admiral Nelson won at the Nile and off Trafalgar Point because he discarded conventional sea warfare tactical doctrine, replacing it with novel naval strategies to be executed by a “band of brothers” trained to think different and win decisively. Apple became a behemoth by thinking different–not just outside the box–but without any constraining box. No longer. Pity.

Now, moving from Ayes and Ives to AI, the Spy notes that the term “Artificial Intelligence” has always been a misnomer. If one must keep the letters, they’d best be rendered in words as “Assisted Intelligence” or better yet, EIA (Enhanced Intelligence Applications).

After all, such systems are essentially programs designed to mine large amounts of data, running it through a variety of human-created heuristic algorithms and offering said humans back conclusions based on their own decision-making rules and data. Lacking real awareness, any intentionality, any independence of thought and action of their own, they derive their existence and functionality from human intelligence, and function only to enhance human intentionality. They are deterministic automatons. Any meaning to their existence and functionality is derived from their human designers and they are not in any meaningful sense “intelligent”.

The hard AI SF stories of self-aware programs, machinery, or symbiotes of the two (including a couple of the Spy’s own “characters”) are entertaining but fanciful hoopla-myths. That’s why the devices his human characters carry about to access the planetary database, communicate with one another, and enable well-informed decisions are called PIEAs (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliances) and not AIs. Smartphones, while a step along the way to his PIEA, are only partway there–if there even is a targetable “there” there.

The speed and utility of expert systems based on imitative algorithms and designed to facilitate sound decision making can scarcely be denied. But all the intelligence of intent and meaning is with the human designer and the human interpreter. None lies in the machine, however fast, and however utilitarian they may become. This is still true when the designers throw in algorithms to allow “learning”, for these too are data and heuristic driven and lack any independent “self”. The Spy is with Penrose on this one, not Minsky, and won’t buy the hard AI farm. Perhaps the reader could come up with words for the acronym EIEIO.

Moreover, the increasing frequency of malignant breeches for both data and system operation underscores the necessity to rely on good old fashioned (albeit slow, error prone, and conflicted by politics and greed) human wetware when making decisions that affect human beings. A little creativity and a lot more principle-driven integrity would help too.

On to the Ai Yi Yi department

First up is Samsung and its hasty imitators that tried to rush foldables to the market without proper testing. We will get them Real Soon Now, but they’ve become a cautionary tale. And perhaps Apple will benefit by not being overly quick to innovate or copy in this case. Ah well, the initial foldable computers (let’s face it; that’s what a Smart Phone really is) will be pretty crude and fragile. They’ll give way quickly to a tri-fold model and thence eventually to one we roll up (by voice commend) into a tube the size of a pencil or incorporate into other form factors. Pocket protector, anyone? (The Spy has a character who builds them into sword hilts.)

Next up are the Apple mid-2015 and subsequent MacBook Pro machines whose batteries can dangerously overheat. Been there experienced that. In the Spy’s case, as our reader may recall, the battery swelled up and bent the case–all of which had to be replaced (came with a new keyboard as part of a integral case-battery package unit). Since the problem was reported to have begun just before the then warranty expired, the $900 repair was covered. One supposes that had it lasted till now it would have been fixed under this new program. 

Actually, the machine is showing signs that the SSD is nearing end of life, so it will soon be time to replace it anyway. But this, the fault-prone keyboards, issues with integral cables, the too-thin case prone to overheating, and the all-in-one designs prompted by the obsession with those same thin cases has resulted in a quality deterioration that is destroying Apple’s reputation. Buck up. You have done better. Question for you, iTim. Is this on you or on Jony?

Third is the increasing number of ransomware incidents, now often targeted at local and state governments. Ai caramba. For the umpteenth time read my lips: Computers Are Not Secure. The Spy has numerous backups of his many files (now numbering well over 160K) and rarely loses data. Is he proof against an actual takeover attack (as opposed to a fake or claimed intrusion)? Maybe. Is he proof against losing data? Mostly, but not entirely. Put another way: he hasn’t suffered very many malware hacks or data loss incidents, but the number of either isn’t zero–and he is a total security and redundancy freak.

Oh, and again a like reprise repeated all over again: Mail Is Not Private. It traverses many systems and lots of people can intercept it. As the Spy predicted in the 1980s, and has been evident for some time now, nothing much is private or secure. Don’t just complain about it. Have lots of off-line backups and be up front and honest. You can then survive an intrusion with minimal data loss and it won’t much matter when (not if) people read your mail or your files. Welcome to a non-privacy world.

Yet another “oops” is self-driving cars. Their time is coming, but not yet. Lots more work needed on the “AI” to prevent the “Yi Yis”. After a spate of lawsuits are settled, and once software development becomes a licensed profession, we may get applications (these and most others) that actually work. First we need to transition to an engineering culture where software safety, security, and reliability is expected, demanded, and delivered (or else the developers and the company messing up are sued for malpractice and damages). 

Then it might happen. If you don’t believe the Spy, ask Boeing about their experience with self driving planes using the software they farmed out to $9 per hour amateurs. Then imagine how much it is going to cost the company in both money and reputation.

A “good grief” kind of Ai Yi Yi involves the many pundit calls to break up the FAMANG tech companies (Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix and Google.) The Spy asks “how?” and “to what end?” He can see no upside to this idea except the possibility of spreading the equity more widely among billionaire stockholders. Besides, the more arrogant, sloppy, or complacent even of these will end up bankrupt and forgotten anyway.

The Spy raises yet another issue with the potential to  become far more serious than all the rest put together by mentioning the “F” word. Famine, that is. Seems we have a sun cycle minimum driving weather nasty enough to trigger potential massive food crop failures in the Excited States and several other countries this year. (The corn is definitely not knee high for the fourth of July.) If the lull in sun spots becomes an extended one (as has happened before) and food crops are reduced by, say, 20% or more, we could see that percentage of the world’s population die from famine. Historical precedents. There isn’t much by way of a technology fix for this kind of thing. Just saying there are alarming signs, not predicting.

A last “Ai Yi Yi” to the Spy his ownself on his 48th birthday today (the “today” of this writing, that is). Canada celebrates it two days early and the Excited States a day late. “Whoops,” you say, “if you started this column in 1983 (true) “you were only twelve.” Correct deduction, faulty data interpretation. He was indeed writing at that age, and had his first newspaper column by three years later, but–ahem–reports his current age above in the younger-appearing numerals rendered in the favourite base employed by old assembler programmers–the ones that never die, just BTG (Branch to Tall Grass). He, however, does anticipate a better BTH.

Oh, and one more thing

The Spy is pleased to mention that all 10 of his novels (the earliest ones now in third editions) are now available in print as well as electronic form. Go to the site below for his books, and click on the link in the RSS feed on the right, or on the “How To Buy” item in the Fiction drop down menu at the top, to get to the page with the full list of Amazon links for both. 

For the reader who has been anxiously awaiting the concluding blockbuster novel in both series, Paladin is there with all the rest, but is too long to fit in a single paperback, so its dead tree format has to be purchased in two parts. Sorry about that. No such limitations for the eBook. Enjoy. Will there be any more? Not in these series, though he has more stories to tell that didn’t fit the volumes as released. We’ll see. He’s kinda busy in his temporary (scoped now to be two years) Dean of Science job. See y’all.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics, Interim Dean of Science and Chair of the University Senate at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. 

He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972. 

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises: 

The Northern Spy Home Page: http: //www. TheNorthernSpy. com

opundo : http: //opundo. com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http: //sheaves. org

WebNameHost : http: //www. WebNameHost. net

WebNameSource : http: //www. WebNameSource. net

nameman : http: //nameman. net

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books: 

Author Site: http: //www. arjay. ca

Publisher’s Site: http: //www. writers-exchange. com/Richard-Sutcliffe. html

The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http: //www. arjay. bc. ca/EthTech/Text/index. html

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