I was reminded of watching a printer pumping out page after page after page after page of garbage output because I had activated a process I couldn’t stop when reading Jamais Cascio’s article Autonomy without intelligence? in Fast Company last week. Cascio describes autonomous software systems operating without human intervention in the finance sector. Called, High-frequency trading (HFT), it relies on networked computers making billions of micro transactions to determine and eventually set the prices. From the Cascio article (an example referenced from a NY Times article by Charles Duhigg here),
Soon, thousands of orders began flooding the markets as high-frequency software went into high gear. Automatic programs began issuing and canceling tiny orders within milliseconds to determine how much the slower traders were willing to pay. The high-frequency computers quickly determined that some investors’ upper limit was $26.40. The price shot to $26.39, and high-frequency programs began offering to sell hundreds of thousands of shares.
The potential for abuse is huge as Cascio points out, exploiting legal loopholes left from “pre-computerized stock trading rules, illegal activities, and systems operating too fast for any human to oversee, let alone counter.” ( For more details about High-frequency trading, read the Cascio and Duhigg articles.)
Cascio then goes on to hypothesize the use of similar networked automatic programs for military purposes. Imagine programs (algorithms) being set into motion and our inability to oversee or counteract them in a military situation? The question hit home again when I found this article (Call for Debate on Killer Robots) by Jason Raimer on the BBC News. Describing one of the impacts of using drone planes that are piloted remotely (sometimes from thousands of miles away),
The rise in technology has not helped in terms of limiting collateral damage, [Professor Noel Sharkey, University of Sheffield] said, because the military intelligence behind attacks was not keeping pace.
Between January 2006 and April 2009, he estimated, 60 such “drone” attacks were carried out in Pakistan. While 14 al-Qaeda were killed, some 687 civilian deaths also occurred, he said.
That physical distance from the actual theatre of war, he said, led naturally to a far greater concern: the push toward unmanned planes and ground robots that make their decisions without the help of human operators at all.
In fact, the article goes on to reveal that Israel is currently deploying the Harpy, an unmanned aerial vehicle that divebombs radar systems without any human intervention whatsoever. I gather everything is in the algorithms.
I recently came across the word intelligent as applied to windows. It’s a use for the word that contrasts strongly with Cascio’s where he implies that intelligence (in the context of the article cited previously) resides in humans. From the media release on Nanowerk News,
RavenBrick’s patent-pending products use nanotechnology to create an intelligent window filter that automatically blocks solar heat when the outside temperature is too hot, while delivering solar heat inside when the outside temperature is cold. RavenBrick smart-window filters use no electricity, wiring or control systems. They can cut building owners’ energy costs and consumption by as much as 50 percent. What’s more, RavenBrick’s smart-window filters make any interior space more comfortable by managing overheating on hot days, and significantly reduce drafts and cold spots on cold days.
What strikes me most about using the word intelligent to describe these new windows is that I would never have questioned it prior to juxtaposing comments from the Cascio, Duhigg, and Raimer articles. Many times I’ve heard the word intelligent or smart applied to systems or objects without every seriously questioning it. If words are important, than what does applying the word smart or intelligent to a window imply? I’m going to be playing with that one for a while.
To finish off, here’s a link to some pretty nano pictures from the SPmages09 competition which were posted on Nanowerk News. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find,