Architecture and Hardware Last byte

The Candidate

Seeking the programmer vote, an AI delivering a slogan like "make coding great again" could easily be seen as a threat.

From the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, with boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what could be.
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The Candidate, illustration

The news anchor smiled with veneered whiteness. "Doctor, before we meet the candidate, I guess we need to clear up the IBM/JCN rumor."

JCN’s founder did his best to pretend he had not heard the question before. "Call me ‘Ed,’ please. It’s coincidence. We’re JCN because our distinctive technology is based on Josephson Commutative Networks. We were too busy inventing the world’s most flexible computers to notice the initials were one away from IBM."

"Sure…" The anchor looked unconvinced. "So do you honestly believe anyone will take a glowing green box crammed with digital components seriously as a candidate for president of the CCA, America’s leading programmers union? We’ll speak to a union spokesman in a moment, but what makes you think your machine has a chance?"

"We’ve moved on since Google DeepMind’s machine beat a Go master and Watson triumphed over the best human players on "Jeopardy!" Halle has many qualities making her an ideal candidate. She certainly understands programming, and, better, she’s no politician. Perhaps we should get her answer?"

The anchor smiled agreement, and the light rose on a corner of the studio where a neat, glowing green box was indeed the avatar of the networked entity called Halle, topped with a baseball cap labeled "Make Coding Great Again." "As president of the Code Cutters Association, I would be representing thousands of highly skilled and well-compensated American workers in the computing industry. My industry. Why shouldn’t I take part?"

"That’s fine, Halle," the anchor put on her serious face, "but a lot of people will wonder why machine intelligence is needed for that role?"

"I could turn that back on you," said Halle, "and ask why we need human intelligence in any role involving routine or repetitive effort. AI is here to stay. The deep neural networks in my processors provide general-purpose intelligence and constantly learn from their experience. It’s an ideal solution for everyday repetitive work. We may be descendants of Siri and Cortana, but we’re way more flexible."

"Now let’s bring in the union’s media spokesman, Adam Selene," said the anchor. What’s wrong with Halle running for the post, Mr. Selene? Who knows computing better than she does?"

The spokesman, a big man with a jet-black beard, scowled. "Oh, sure. And let’s elect a toaster head of a catering union and put a teleprompter in charge of journalists. Surely you can see putting AI ahead of human leadership doesn’t make sense?"

"Come on," said the anchor. "It’s an AI negotiating on behalf of very human interests. That’s different, and you know it. Halle isn’t dumb hardware."

"Right," said the spokesman, "and I fully accept that she can trade facts and figures with any corporate executive. But our programmers/voters will never identify with a box, even one able to communicate so convincingly. And her name … Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey was not exactly a great role model."

Halle chuckled, sounding surprisingly human. "I told the guys the name was a problem, but what can you do? They’re geeks. To them, Hal is an inspiration. Leaving aside the mistake of making Hal male …" Halle paused for the anchor’s laughter, "… the whole concept of the HAL 9000 was flawed. In 2001, Hal says ‘No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake.’ That alone shows he wasn’t intelligent. You can’t be a thinking entity without making mistakes. I’m not built like that, Adam. Though I suspect some of the other all-too-human candidates believe they’re incapable of error."

"Come on, Adam," said Ed, the JCN founder. "Accept it. Halle can do the job better than any human."

"My dad was an early programmer," said Selene. "A real hacker. In the early 1980s, the British software company D.J. AI Systems brought out a program called The Last One that scared the hell out of him. The idea was you bought this application and fired your human programmers. Users specified the requirements and it wrote the code. Thankfully, it took five minutes to generate 100 lines of BASIC, so it flopped. But that was Halle’s grandpa—not the programmers’ friend but their replacement. I agree Halle could do a better job than many programmers, but how could we ever accept her?"

"Oh, sure. And let’s elect a toaster head of a catering union and put a teleprompter in charge of journalists."

Halle interrupted the JCN founder as he started to reply. "Think about it. I’m no threat. I can churn out code but could never equal a top-flight creative human code cutter. What I can do, sure as hell, is beat any executive in a labor negotiation. I’ll know when their figures are cooked and even what they’re hiding. I’m going to fight for the members 24/7. Who else could take on 10 different calls, meetings, and email messages simultaneously? It’s not programmers who have to worry but the pen pushers."

The anchor looked at Selene. "What do you think?"

Shrugging, he said, "I’d need evidence that this wasn’t a management trick for the sole purpose of putting human programmers out of work, like everything else."

The JCN founder nodded. "AI systems like Halle do away with lots of tedious or uncreative but programmable work. I appreciate that could be a threat, just as mechanization was a threat to unskilled workers in the industrial revolution. But it will open up far more creative opportunities. People are capable of far more than flipping burgers or churning out mediocre code. We believe that. So here’s an offer. We can open up Halle to any analysis your members would want to perform. We can demonstrate algorithmically that she has no interest in providing cover for management taking their jobs—only in achieving better job security and benefits and getting the bean counters off their backs."

Selene held up his hands. "I can’t make promises. But let’s see what we can do."

The lights went down in the studio, leaving the anchor, Ed, the JCN founder, and Halle in a pool of shadow as the spokesman unhooked his microphone and walked away. The JCN founder watched him go. "The spokesman’s name, Adam Selene, though. Like in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. He’s not an AI, is he?"

"Genuine wetware," said the anchor, "unless ARM’s new model is better than we thought. Sorry, wait … I have to power down to recharge my onboard batteries. You’re so lucky, Halle. You wouldn’t believe the power it takes to keep a humanoid form active. That’s why we say, Box is Best!"

The anchor slumped in her seat. The JCN founder frowned, walking over to Halle. "I don’t like that ‘Box is Best’ thing. They were chanting it on the Pro-Mech march last week."

Although they were still communicating verbally, Halle fired over the electronic equivalent of a grin via Bluetooth. "You only hear the humanoid AIs using it. They see themselves as second class. The anchor is right to worry for her job—with regular old TV news dying the way it is—but we’ll always need humanoids for jobs requiring mobility. I’m more concerned about regular flesh-and-blood humans. Why don’t they understand? AIs run the world already; we don’t want to take away their fun. It should be obvious. I mean, financial markets have been AI-versus-AI since the end of the 20th century. And more recently AIs have been handling most online advertising. Humans have had long enough to adapt. Why such a struggle when it’s for their own good?"

The JCN founder straightened Halle’s cap. "Welcome to politics, Halle. You’re going to find that human trust is about more than logic. Win their hearts first and the rest will follow."

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