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When software rules the world

When software rules the world

I was a young boy when elevator operators still closed those see-through, metal accordion interior elevator doors by hand and then moved the elevator up or down by rotating a knob on a wheel embedded in the elevator wall.

Within a few years all those operators were gone, replaced by numbered buttons on the elevator wall. Today, so many activities that used to be mediated by human judgement are now governed by algorithms inside automated systems.

Apart from the implications for elevator operators and others displaced by such technology, there is the question of transparency. It’s easy to determine visually whether an elevator door is open and the elevator is level with the floor you’re on so that you can safely exit.

As the world has seen to its horror twice recently, it’s harder to know whether software on a Boeing 737 MAX is giving you the right information and doing the right thing while you are in mid-flight.

Yet, more and more of our lives are being turned over to software. And, despite the toll in lives; stolen identities; computer breaches and cybercrime; and even the threat that organized military cyberwar units now pose to critical water and electricity infrastructure—despite all that, the public, industry and government remain in thrall to the idea that we should turn over more and more control of our lives to software.

Of course, software can do some things much better and faster than humans: vast computations and complex modeling; control of large-scale processes such as oil refining and air transportation routes; precision manufacturing by robots and many, many other tasks. We use software to tell machines to do repetitive and mundane tasks (utilizing their enormous capacity and speed) and to give us insight into the highly complex, for example, climate change.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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