HAL 9000 made Artificial Intelligence tangible in the same way that it made AI distant. Kubrick’s rendition of Arthur C. Clarke’s benevolent-then-malevolent personified computer offered the full package of autonomous horror, a super-capable mind with an unblinking stare given total control over the mechanical processes needed to sustain human life. The fiction that dominated mid-century understandings of AI offered this Gestalt entity, synthetic life brought forth by human hands. AI in 2019 is not the beast of fiction. It is, instead, something far more subtle: a series of tools running inside machines that are so useful as to be taken for granted.
Consider, if you will, the way in which AI is hidden in the news from last week.
A robot, aided by an autonomous stabilization system (and possibly guidance systems), flew over the cruiser USS Boxer. On the deck of the Boxer was parked a vehicle with an electronic warfare package, the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated Systems (LMADIS). The sensors look for small-to-medium sized drones, scans them against a database, checks to see if they are friendly or hostile, and then, at human direction, jams the drones out of the sky. Depending on how AI is defined, AI is responsible for somewhere between all and none of that process.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton , reporting from New Haven, Connecticut, and this is the third installment of Tomorrow Wars.
The deck-mounted LMADIS is a novel adaptation to a modern threat, and has been underway for some time. The systems that went into it are not particularly novel, nor, really, is the incident where it jammed a drone over the Strait of Hormuz. I mention it here because of the background way that machine reasoning works: as a new function of a tool, rather than the defining feature. We may not be living fully in an AI age, but we regularly encounter machines with varying degrees of autonomy.
AI today is ever-present, even if it’s not an unblinking orange eye reading lips and driven by the demands of plot. Understanding both the ubiquity and the limits of AI as it exists is essential to the modern moment. Onwards to the news!