Archive for February, 2009

Life Imitations of Fiction?

Edited: Corrected title!

Ok, that should probably be life imitates art but I am increasingly seeing a potential fictional future being constructed right before our very eyes. I like reading fiction, mostly because they provide a chance to examine events from various hypothetical perspectives. It is true that most fiction are based on some kind of reality and that is what make them fiction as opposed to taking leave of one’s faculties.

Movies like Terminator, the Matrix etc bring to life the possible threat that artificial intelligence and robots in general pose to humanity at large. Besides Hollywood having a special effects orgy there are some interesting works of fiction that touch on such subjects. So far I have been an avid reader of the works of Isaac Asimov; one of the good aspects of Asimov works is that humanity is the focus – there are no alien races and the like but the novels focus on the triumphs and failures of the human race as time passes. In the Robot series, the three laws of robotics are prominent to a greater degree as such laws are amended and explored by seemingly intelligent machines.

The three laws of robotics are not in themselves perfect and the amount of materials available (both in support of and against these laws) is quite vast. However, the continued improvements and developments in the fields of artificial intelligence may perhaps lead us to soon require similar guidelines in the implementation of these effective merger of artificial intelligence and robotics. As we assign increasingly complex tasks to automated machinery, it becomes important and efficient to allow these robots to be increasingly autonomous but that autonomy must also not be unlimited.

Until such time that we can successfully create artificial sentience, we are the only species that are capable of a moral (thus ethical) act – judging good from bad and being removed from the chance to make such judgment does present grave threat to how our societies function. What happens when a robot running a factory kills people? Who is responsible for the robot’s actions? They do indeed remain the properties of their respective owners but what kind of liability does the owner have over the actions and decisions of a contraption that seeks to carry out its task as efficiently as possible.

These are weighty issues that authors like Asimov have delved into in a number of books but increased developments in AI and robotics suggests a need for practical and implementable safe guards. Such safe guards become more important in the context of battle robots. These are robots that make life and death decisions will affect their owners (the soldiers in the field) as well as anybody who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a pretty disturbing irony when you consider the fact that a machine (robot) has all the capacity to be as efficient as possible when a robot makes a mistake, it is likely to have a big impact. On the other hand discussions about code of ethics for our creations kind of says a lot about us as creators. Who would be surprised if such code of ethics are designed for our benefit largely while entirely ignoring the potential of a machine?

As someone who is physically handicap, the possibility of an intelligent (albeit artificial) robot enabling the enjoyment of life to its most complete and abundant potential is certainly attractive.

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Would you Upgrade to a less Secure Windows 7?

The beta of the next release of Windows has been making rounds and has garnered mostly positive reviews as a beta with most people having good things to say about performance. Windows 7 essentially addresses the short comings of Windows Vista and top on the list of Vista’s transgressions is the User Account Control (UAC) feature which was intended to make Windows more secure but it proved to be too zealous in its prompts for permissions. Changes in Windows 7 aim to reduce the number of prompts that UAC asks for but so far this may have led to a less secure configuration on the next release of Windows.

According to two Windows enthusiasts, the current configuration of UAC on the beta version of Windows 7 makes the next release of Windows vulnerable. One of these threats allows malware to turn off UAC. A nasty piece of code would take advantage of your Windows 7 box without any protest from your system. The second flaw allows malware to elevate its permission on the system. The details of the second exploit can be found here. It basically take advantage of the fact that processes that ship with Windows 7 are allowed to automatically elevate their permissions on the system without any UAC prompt. However it is possible to use a binary that ships with Windows 7 to launch a third party program which can be a malware thus allowing malware free pass into your system.

The incredible and perhaps scary bit of this drama is Microsoft’s response to these flaws: so far, the response from Microsoft is that these two issues are not flaws but are there by design. In what world does make it sense to insist that an apparent security vulnerability is there by design, unless the intention was to have a vulnerable design from the outset. I don’t buy that “by design” argument as it seem to be based on the fact that there is absolutely no way that malware can find its way into a Windows 7 system in the first place thus making it all right to make flawed design choices.

The reaction to and interest in Windows 7 has been phenomenal to say the least and personally I was impressed by the fact that Microsoft is getting the benefit of what comes as part of the open source software development: community support and involvement in software development. These two security issues were raised by Windows enthusiasts and raised using a beta release for that matter; the upside is that this gives Microsoft the chance to fix the vulnerability before releasing Windows 7. More importantly fixing the vulnerability would be important in cementing relationship between Windows hackers from the broader end user community and Microsoft such that cooperating towards securing Windows becomes an imperative of everyone in the Windows ecosystem.

UAC in Windows Vista was annoying but I have always thought I much rather get used to the annoyance of UAC than to suffer malware infestation which would dramatically increase the amount of time I spend baby sitting Windows. The UAC changes in Windows 7 are implemented to lessen the annoyance that was in Vista but there exists a real threat of these changes causing Windows 7 to become less secure. It is a delicate balance between security and usability and missing that balance can shape end user’s reaction to a product. How Microsoft deals with this so called by design flaw can possibly shape people’s attitude towards Windows 7. To Microsoft the more important question is how many people are willing to hang on to Windows XP because of the perceived vulnerabilities in Windows 7.

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