Coming soon: the refrigerator with evil intent

The British Association for the Advancement of Science
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The Independent Online
The fridge of the future will be an intelligent machine able to decide for itself what food its owner needs, and to order it from a supermarket. But it might also decide that humans are troublesome extras that interfere with its efficient operation, and try to kill them.

The warning came yesterday from Roland Burns of the University of Plymouth, who said that society was moving "inevitably" towards a world controlled by intelligent machines. "The question is, if these systems are going to exist, what level of control are we going to give them, and what authority?" he told the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Birmingham.

An ever-growing range of consumer products, including cars, washing machines, televisions, cameras and telephones are now controlled by microchips. Though few of those items could communicate with each other now, the next generation of industrial and domestic machinery would include more "intelligence" than ever, Professor Burns said.

"For instance, when you're putting food into the fridge you might swipe it past a bar-code reader so your system will know what's in the house. Then you can imagine it being linked to your bank account, and to the rest of the house, so it could do everything on your behalf - pay bills, order food and so on."

However, Professor Burns believes that such scenarios contain hidden dangers. "I think most people would be happy to let machines make decisions for them," he said. "But the fridge might decide that if it locks all the doors in the house and gets rid of you then it could really get the household operating efficiently."

Bugs in the programs and unpredictable effects from computer viruses could be devastating, he said. Nor was it yet clear whether such systems could be designed so that they would never harm a human. It would however be almost impossible to avoid a future in which intelligent machines had a central role.

The rapid evolution of these systems by the military could lead to strange developments. The cruise missile, which could follow contours of terrain, used Seventies technology. "There are extremely intelligent machines in the military environment today," Professor Burns said.

In the future, battles might be fought between warring intelligent machines, with humans as by-standers. "You could have a war fought over the Internet," he said. Already, military equipment such as the European Fighter Aircraft was uncontrollable by humans - it was inherently unstable and microprocessors were essential for it to stay in the air.

"In the next decade, we are going to see a growth of technology that we have never seen before," Professor Burns said. I'm just trying to raise a warning flag, so we are aware of what could potentially happen."