Culture Magazine

Disaster Narrowly Escaped, Or Why Computers Suck and Worries About Superintelligence Are Effing Crazy

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Not too long ago I wrote a long-form post in which I argued that we are in no danger of having a superintelligent computer mysteriously emerge from the computational woodwork and take over the world, sending humanity permanently to the freakin’ showers – which, by the way, might not be a bad thing if the water temperature is right. Could we have hot tubs and high-def TV in there while we’re at it? Since then the following thought, in one form or another, has been rolling through my brain:
Software, for the most part, is buggy as all get-out; many a major software project gets stopped because the software just doesn’t work, and these folks are prattling on about a superintelligent computer!?! Gimme a break!
I mean, if the software substrate for this superintelligent computer is like the software in use on billions of computers around the world, that superintelligent computer wouldn’t even be able to tie its own shoelaces let alone rule the world.
Um, err, you’ve just made a category mistake.
Category mistake?
Yeah. Computers don’t have shoes, and so our Superintelligent Lord and Master wouldn’t have shoelaces to worry about.
My very point, Grasshopper. If your Computer Lord and Master is made from standard-issue buggy software it wouldn’t know that it didn’t have shoes or shoelaces...
...and My Computer Overlord would get stuck in an infinite loop looking for its non-existent shoelaces. Whoops!
You got it.
* * * * *
Why am I saying these things? Well, it’s been on my mind – I’ve got a computer, how can bugs not be on my mind? – but specifically, I just managed to escape a software disaster that was potentially devastating. At first it looked like some bug had trashed 90% of my intellectual work and my professional life. After 15 or 30 minutes of nervous trouble-shooting, however, I’d tentatively decided the worst I faced was hours and hours and hours of extra fiddling around over the next months and years.
* * * * *
Here’s what happened, more or less, as best I can reconstruct it without getting really picky.
I got up early this AM and starting browsing the web, checking things out here and there. My usual routine. And then I decided to write a post. Also standard. I went to open a text document and it wouldn’t open.
MSWord told me, unhelpfully, that the file I wanted to work on was locked or in use by another user. Now, there is no other user on this computer and I never locked that Word doc. This behavior occurs every once in awhile – monthly, maybe weekly – and it’s no big deal. I simply unlocked this file that I’d never locked and proceeded to open it. This had always worked in the past so I fully expected it to work now.
Same error message, locked or in use. I repeated the unlock. Still didn’t open.
I was beginning to worry. And, for that matter, the error messages I’ve been getting this time were a bit different from the one’s I’d had in the past. Now I was getting a message telling me that MSWord didn’t open this kind of file with a double-click on the icon but that if I trusted the file, I could go to the File menu (in the Finder, I’m running on a Mac) and use the Open command.
So I did that and, guess what? Right. I didn’t freakin’ open. But I tried it again several times. Didn’t work.
Was this file lost forever? Worse, were all files of this type lost, perhaps forever? This file was a text file in the “.doc” format. I’ve been using MS Word since 1999 or so (Apple Works before then) and had lots of dot-docs around.
So, first thing I did was attempt to open some “.docx” files. They opened with no problem. That was a relief, for it meant that much of the work I’ve done in the last two years or so was likely to be OK.
But still, I’ve got an aweful lot of those old dot-docs around. I checked another one.
Same freakin’ problem.
Well, that error window, the one with the message I’d not seen before, had a hyperlink in it so I could go for help. I clicked it and found a couple of work-arounds at Microsoft’s support area on the web. But they didn’t work.
I was getting really really worried. Have I lost all my dot-docs? That would be a disaster! I went into Time Machine – the Mac’s cool backup facility – and pulled up an older version of the (apparently) buggy file. Why’d I do that? Because yesterday I’d run MacKeeper on my machine to clean it up, something I’d not done since my old PowerPC died two years ago. Maybe MacKeeper has somehow trashed all the dot-docs. Perhaps, though, older versions are OK.
And – you guessed it – the older version didn’t work either.
I continued working and gave one of the work-arounds another try. This time it worked. The suggestion was to open the file in Mac’s TextEdit program. Most of the formatting was gone, but at least I got the text back. Tried it on another file. Worked again.
At this point here’s how things looked: The dot-docx files seem to be OK. The dot-docs are messed up, but I can at least get the text back by laundering through TextEdit. The files aren’t lost, but I’m going to have to waste time reformatting those old dot-docs as I need then, depending on this and that. So, it’s just lots of nudgy work spread out over the next few months to a year or two as the need arises to access those files.
We’re an hour and a half into disaster recovery and I can start breathing again. Not a BIG DISASTER – work lost forever – just a BIG EFFIN’ PAIN IN THE @SS.
* * * * *
I tried one last thing. I restarted the computer. Guess what?
The problem went away?
You got it, Grasshopper. The dot-docs now seemed to be working like they should. They’re opening easy as pie. I seem to back to where I was yesterday.
* * * * *
Still, I haven’t got the faintest idea of what happened. Since the problem arose after I’d run MacKeeper for the first time in two years – of course, I had to update to the current version – I figured that it had somehow trashed those files. It’s a compelling conclusion.
But that doesn’t make it correct. Correlation isn’t causation. I know that I ran MacKeeper yesterday evening. I’m not sure that I didn’t open any dot-docs afterward and simply forgot about them. Perhaps MacKeeper had nothing to do with. Maybe MSWord was just being more ornery than usual.
Furthermore, MacKeeper isn’t the only new thing that hit my machine yesterday. I also installed Adobe Bridge and edited a photo in Photoshop – something I hadn’t done on this machine. Photoshop crashed during use. Maybe Photoshop did whatever it was that bugged my machine.
Why that should have resulted in problems with dot-docs, who knows?
Who knows?
* * * * *
And yet we have a bunch of smart and imaginative people believing that one day a superintelligent computer is going to emerge out of the infosphere and declare itself to be Master of the Universe as We Know It. The fact is I don’t even know what “superintelligent” means and, as far as I can tell, neither do the Singularitarians.
Yeah, “superintelligent” means more intelligent than us. But that’s not a meaningful guide to designing and building software. Arguments and speculation about superintelligent machines are, if not a complete waste of time and intellect, just miscategorized science fiction.
* * * * *
Plain old dumb software that’s not buggy, now THAT would be an advance of major proportions. Maybe even a singularity, that is, maybe that would usher in a world so different from the present world that we can’t imagine what it would be like. Whatever the concepts and practices that allow us to eliminate software bugs, they’re going to have other consequences, perhaps even outside computing.
Think about it, a world of bug-free software. And that’s must one aspect of the Brave New World that’s going to emerge from beneath out feet within a century or so.
“The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

–Stanislaw Ulam, from a tribute to John von Neumann

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