Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Computers are Taking Over!

How can a book which was originally published in the early 1990s for a price of around $50 become listed by two reputable book vendors in 2011 for a price of over $20 million?

Well... it happens when you let the computers run your world, and sadly we are doing more and more of that. For the gory details, read this post by an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley who was trying to buy the textbook for his lab and discovered this insane pricing:
A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).


The price peaked on April 18th, but on April 19th profnath’s price dropped to $106.23, and bordeebook soon followed suit to the predictable $106.23 * 1.27059 = $134.97. But Peter Lawrence can now comfortably boast that one of the biggest and most respected companies on Earth valued his great book at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).
Having worked in the computer industry for 30 years, I for one will not be happy the day the computers take over. These machines are not like biological machines which have great redundancy and soft failure modes. Computers simply crash. And like the above case, they simply go nuts from time to time. Humans don't have the abililty to program a truly complex system that is meant to be autonomous. The idea that robots can "do their thing" is scary.

On the other hand, it is inevitable that the computers will take over. We are in a headlong rush of technological development and along the way we keep ceding more and more turf to them. The day will come when they are "in charge". Hopefully I won't live long enough to see that day. Don't get me wrong. I love computers. I'm fascinated by them. But I realize how the industry has grown too fast with too little regard for the robust safety needed for truly autonomous decision-making.

The future will be "interesting". That is both a curse and a promise.

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