we’d all be very wealthy by now. The Danish physicist Neils Bohr famously opined: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. By Toby Walsh Despite this, I confidently predict that machines will come to run our lives. And I’m not alone in this view. US mathematician Claude Shannon, one of the fathers of computation, wrote: “I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.” And physicist Stephen Hawking, who is never short of a quote on life, the universe and everything has said that: “Unless mankind redesigns itself by changing our DNA through altering our genetic makeup, computer-generated robots will take over our world”. So how can we be so sure? Well, in a sense, it’s already happened. Computers are in charge of many aspects of our lives and it’s probably too late to turn them off. Last month, medical bills in Australia couldn’t be paid. The cause? Computer software in the Australian Health Industry Claims and Payments Service (HICAPS) system that didn’t know about the leap day. In November 2009, the entire air traffic control system of the United States crashed, causing chaos to travellers. The cause? The failure of a single router board. And in August 2003, a powercut in the United States put 55 million people in the dark. The cause? Faulty software on a single computer that failed to detect what should have been a harmless local outage. And there are many more examples. When computers fail, we see just how dependent we have become on them. Historians will probably look back from the 22nd century and observe that the rise of machines became inevitable the day we first picked up a rock and started using it as a tool. Since then, we’ve been using machines to amplify our physical and, more recently, our mental capabilities. Computers are now embedded into almost every aspect of our lives. Sometimes they’re even making life and death decisions:
- In the 1980s, a bug in the software of the Therac-25 radiation therapy machine was directly responsible for at least five deaths.
- In 1991 in Saudi Arabia, a bug in the software of the MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system led to an incoming Scud missile not being located, and indirectly to the death of 28 people.
- In 2007 in South Africa, a robotic anti-aircraft cannon accidentally killed nine people and injured 14 others.