My inner sci-fi geek has been binge watching early episodes of The X-Files lately. Right around the middle of the first season, FBI agents Mulder and Scully face an advanced building automation system with a mind of its own—a mind for self-preservation, apparently, “The most primary instinct of all sentient beings,” Mulder explains. When a stock value oriented executive takes over the corporation and attempts to terminate funding for the cash bleeding operating system’s development, the machine strikes back with an elaborate electrocution, which has investigators stumped.
What the agents come to learn is that Brad Wilczek, the brilliant computer scientist who developed the “Central Operating System,” COS for short, is famous in nerd circles for having built the first “adaptive network,” which in those times, referred to a learning machine, “a computer that actually thinks.” Much like the way Dr. Frankenstein’s creation in the name of scientific advancement spun horrifically out of control, Wilczek’s master creation also becomes a monster of sorts.
When Wilczek attempts to reign the COS in, he discovers a voice synthesizer that he never equipped, and the system downgrades his user level, stating in robot intonation, “That is now at the discretion of the operating system.”
This classic show is brilliant on a number of levels; I’m relishing in its steady stable of retro one-line zingers. Like when the machine triggers an elevator into free-fall, killing an FBI agent, the system bleeps, “Program executed.” Or when the inevitable government conspiracy theory in the episode surfaces, and Wilczek compares himself to Robert Oppenheimer, expounding on how after the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, “[he] spent the rest of his life regretting he ever glimpsed an atom,” adding, “He loved the work, Mr. Mulder. His mistake was in sharing it with an immoral government.”
I could go on for the rest of this editorial with the one-liners, but I’ll just highly recommend that you all go find the episode on Netflix, “The Ghost in the Machine.”
I’m guessing that for many of you, the occasional nightmare about one of the highly advanced systems you built running amok may have jerked you from slumber before. To what extent are you responsible for the repercussions of a system gone awry? While the likeliness that your system will suddenly incur some type of physical devastation is slim, the frequency in which a client is left with AV complexities they neither need nor know how to use is very much a reality. Getting caught up in fancy specs and features leads good systems down the path of self-destruction. Proper attention to client use cases is fundamental to ensuring the AV industry’s successful evolution.