Human beings are naturally a paranoid bunch. We have imagined our ultimate demise time after time in Hollywood, whether its by zombies, meteors or a series of ever worsening acts of God. There is, however, another extremely common human extermination scenario - the robot apocalypse.
As soon as man created the computer, his next question was, when is it going to kill me? As a species we have long viewed those convenient, time saving pieces of tech with suspicion, but luckily, as far as we know our cellphones aren't going to try and kill us just yet (although the jury is still out on whether they're slowly irradiating your balls).
However, despite this, the concept of a robot apocalypse was posed to Randall Munroe, the mastermind behind what-if.xkcd.com - a website which attempts to provide serious scientific answer to all kinds of hypothetical situations. And the short answer to the robot apocalypse? Well, actually, from the sounds of things it wouldn't be that bad.
Scenario 1 - Terminator Apocalypse
First, our robot expert opens with a bold statement:
If all that experience has taught me anything, it’s that the robot revolution would end quickly, because the robots would all break down or get stuck against walls. Robots never, ever work right.
Of course, in the realms of science fiction we can simply conjure up sophisticated, intelligent robotic beings, but in reality, making a robot walk - even on a stable surface - is pretty damn difficult. Although skull-faced Terminators might look intimidating, if you were to go into battle against them, you'd probably soon find the whole thing rather laughable. Our expert continues:
What people don't appreciate, when they picture Terminator-style automatons striding triumphantly across a mountain of human skulls, is how hard it is to keep your footing on something as unstable as a mountain of human skulls. Most humans probably couldn't manage it, and they've had a lifetime of practice at walking without falling over.
Scenario 2 - HAL, Or How Your Computer Learned to Hate You
With scenario 1 too entrenched in science fiction to accurately debate, our What-Ifer decided to look at whether existing technology could potentially turn against us and reap their revenge.
The answer, once again, is slightly relieving.
Put bluntly, most consumer technology has been designed explicitly not to murder, maim or otherwise crush humanity. Furthermore, even the most experimental robots would have trouble navigating their way out of their labs. Our expert explicitly identifies that the little rubber things on the bottom of doors would be particularly tricky for wheeled robots.
What about cell phones? Could they kill us if they wanted? Once again, it's unlikely. I suppose they could pump out cancerous radiation, but considering their battery limit, that's unlikely. Munroe speculates that the biggest danger from cell phones would be slightly annoying ringtones and turning on their vibrate function so they fall off tables and on to unprotected toes. Again, not exactly terrifying.
Computer: Kill! Kill!
Computers could, of course, cause major damage to the financial system of the Earth, resulting in civil unrest and production issues. However, governments will likely respond to this event with robust counter-methods - and indeed, many already have similar disaster plans in place, for example, in the event of a major cyberattack.
Revenge of the automobile?
Cars could cause us problems, especially as more and more functions are controlled by a central computer. However, Munroe identifies that cars would only be dangerous to those inside the vehicles (and some pedestrians). Cars could theoretically control the throttle and disable power steering, but actual steering with the wheel is analog and requires a human - while the parking brake is also mechanical.
Ultimately, he claims cars could potentially incapacitate drivers using airbags or they could try to plow into buildings and obstacles in crazed kamikaze attacks. All told, this puts about 10 million American at risk at any one time.
Military drones seem on the surface to present the biggest risk, but Munroe reminds us not to underestimate the amount of human effort that goes into making them fly. Firstly, most drones are piloted remotely by humans, secondly, we require humans to refuel and rearm them and thirdly they need someone to actually stick them on the runway in the first place. As Munroe concludes:
Much of our fleet would be left helplessly bumping against hangar doors like Roombas stuck in a closet.
This brings us on to the big guns - nuclear weapons.
Could a computer theoretically launch an atomic armageddon? Well, possibly. Technically, nuclear weapons can only be launched with direct human intervention - but there are computers involved at every level, including the communication of launch codes and coordinates. So, in Munroe's scenario, it could be possible for a computer to highjack a launch by deceiving those humans in control of the weapons.
However, I would imagine, if humanity has declared war on microchips, the first thing we'd do is stop using them for communication. A return to carrier pigeons, perhaps?
Furthermore, nukes could potentially do more damage to the robot cause than the human one. Technology is almost always proximate to humans and located in cities, so nuking us would inherently involve wiping out their robotic brethren. Also, nuclear weapons emit powerful electromagnetic pulses which would also fry electronics.
So all told, we have little to fear from our beloved computers, and from the looks of things they'll always remain our devoted servants. Except of course, for printers. It's a well-known fact printers hate all of humanity...
Do you technology will one day turn against us?