INTERNET IS FRAGILE
Let me be upfront: I am no computer wizard. I USED to know a bunch (back before 286 was “top of the line.”). It crashed so often that I had to save documents every 30 seconds. Suddenly there would be the “blue screen of death” and all that could be done was restart (and lose every bit of data that hadn’t been saved). ALSO, hard drives crashed without warning and ALL data and programs were toast. But the computing world of today makes those machines TOYS. It is no longer thrilling in the positive sense. It is a thriller.
Well, apparently I am not the only person who fears A.I. Scientists who know bunches about computing are sounding the alarm triangle on the front porch, too. For example, Philip Agre, a computer scientist and humanities professor, thoughtfully presented the many ways in which technology would impact the world. That was 1994. No one listened. He said that one day computers would facilitate the mass collection of data on everything in society. He predicted that people would willingly part with massive amounts of information. He predicted the dark side of today.
Yet the problem is bigger than A.I. In fact, the problem I will mention is so big that it could be the fail-safe or the failure of our futures.
First, the internet loses data. It is intentional. Compression saves space and time. Not ALL data gets compressed, and not all compression algorithms are equal (does the internet also need equity?). Some are more “lossy” than others. Google’s will lose the quality of your pictures or music very quickly. If you have a circle of 8 friends you could try an experiment and you would find that the last person to receive a forwarded music video, who’s copy of the video had been forwarded 7 times, might have a noticeably grainy-ish video compared to the original. We think of the internet as being a conservator of knowledge, but it is not always. Further, WHERE the original data is stored in “the cloud” matters. That is because even “original” cloud memory is lost from time to time due to equipment failures. That original picture on Facebook from 3 years ago may be long gone. Sure there are copies in many places, but they are already degraded via transmission. As a result, mistakes creep in. This matters even more as speeds and amount of crucial data increases. Imagine sending a command to an AI which MAY become corrupted en route. “Kill Shorty!” becomes “Kill Shortys” and the AI obeys.
Second, lots of code packages are just out there. Those packages are used by other packages and apps to accomplish simple stuff. In other words, even huge players like Microsoft have built their platforms on decades of accepted ways of doing stuff on the internet. Our armed forces have built their systems on the same foundation. Even A.I. Programs use those foundations. So what happens when one of these code packages goes missing? Guess what could happen (will happen) if a major war between super powers erupts.
It has happened. Code packages have corrupted or disappeared.
Each time it “breaks” the internet for a short while. But what if a whole bunch went missing at once? That has not happened, but logically could. Only the good will of internet code builders keeps the system working well.
When did someone “break” the internet? Well, the story goes that a man in California by the name of Koculu was a programmer who developed freeware (open source programs) and helped create lots of shortcuts. One of those shortcuts, a package, called “Left-Pad” was simple, it allowed other programmers to easily add small amounts of information at the beginning of text (like a zero at the beginning of a zip code). It was just 11 lines of code.
His little workshop was called Kik. In 2016 a corporation registered THEIR product as Kik and demanded that Koculu rename his shop. They threatened legal action. Koculu told them where to go. They pushed even harder. So, Koculu deleted from the internet all the free code packages he had contributed, including the very one that corporation NEEDED to get their products to function correctly. He argued that they were HIS and if he could not keep his Kik site, then no one could use his free code either.
All kinds of important programs ceased to function. It was easily correctable. Most added the code directly to their own programs and within a few days all was well.
However, it points to the problem. If one man can erase a code package of 11 lines and cripple the internet, a large country at war (or a malevolent hacker) could delete thousands of packages of required code and shut down every other country and business which did not have a patch for the missing packages. How much damage could be done in just a few days without air traffic control, communications, electricity supply relays, and technology like radar and GPS? What if your smartphone went absolutely silent for 4 days…would that affect you? The work I do for my employer (I have since retired) would be absolutely shut down, they rely almost entirely on the internet and phone systems. If it were winter, and the electric service ceased to function, how would your city do?
Worse, you could not play a computer game or watch smart TV. Your nest thermostat, ring doorbell, security equipment, garage door opener, and countless other home gadgets would fail. Hospitals, restaurants, stores, gas stations would all go quiet (except for the thieves). Police and fire departments could not respond. In fact, your upscale car might not even unlock its doors to let you in.
Even worse, it would be global. Ships would be lost at sea without GPS. Planes would have to set down without electronic help. Satellites would lose track of their positions and drift off course. I bet even some golf courses would be affected.
I paint a grim picture because this is NOT beyond the scope of possibility.
Sadly, even though programmers have long known of these risks, they have done little to reduce them. To do that, they would have to go through thousands of micro-packets that make up the internet and create multiple copies inside of multiple packets, hiding them behind and within other code.
Meanwhile daily our world is becoming more dependent on that very vulnerable technology.
I mentioned that even A.I. is built using the same system. So, what if, instead of erasing a packet, the malevolent person or agency decides to merely re-write it? What if someone tampers with the compression algorithms? What safeguards are in place? Will this be our downfall or our savior?
Well! On this one I scared (or scarred) myself.
Copyright 2023 Donald Whelpley
[PLEASE NOTE that Don is always open to discussing the thoughts and opinions he shares here and welcomes comments as shared in the comment section. He doesn’t use other social media platforms, as I do, and won’t see whatever you’d like to share with him elsewhere. ~ Sherry]
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