If Planet Earth were covered with trillions of synthetic brain cells, each monitoring its surroundings and communicating with neighbor cells, would it develop thoughts and feelings of its own? Would such a planet rise up against its human overlords in the manner of HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clark's 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Isn't that a question with possible answers so dangerous that nobody dare ask it?
Two local tech enterprises, both dedicated to making it easier to drive and park automobiles, are right now installing a perceptive neural network on the Earth's surface -- one that, under certain conditions, might theoretically give rise to a Planet Earth with thoughts, feelings and -- we may as well
say it -- pent up enviro-rage.
In 2005, SF Weekly -- not to be confused with Sci Fi Weekly -- warned of possible dangerous side effects being courted by San Francisco startup Streetline Networks. The company was adapting intelligent-dust technology first funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The original idea was for the Army to drop millions of tiny pressure, temperature, and sound sensors over a battlefield, and link them one to another with weak radio signals.
Streetline's innovation was to apply this idea to parking spaces, so radio-linked pressure sensors could monitor which spaces were always full. High-demand spaces would be priced higher, thus encouraging motorists to move along more quickly and freeing up spots for others.
It's a great idea -- as long as it doesn't generate artificial-intelligence side effects
Sreetline apparently ignored my warning that they were routing us on a path toward planetary sentience, and got Gavin Newsom interested in the idea. This month, San Francisco is scheduled to embark on a $20 million pilot project.
"SFPark is the largest dynamic parking demand management project in the world, with 6,000 curbside parking spaces and 11,500 off-street spaces in city-owned garages," Planetizen reports.
As if that weren't scary enough, the cell phone company Nokia is embarking on another, separate project that could add an additional layer to the potential threat of earthly sentience. Ominously called The Mobile Millenium Project, this second threat shares with SFPark a cover story putatively aimed at moving cars along more efficiently.
The idea is to use cell phones as traffic sensors, in order to deliver a cellular-level traffic report gleaned from velocity, location and other data gleaned from tens of thousands of cars. This project, conducted by University of California researchers, funded by Nokia, completed a pilot test of 100 cars last February, and now has more than 3,000 users in the San Francisco Bay Area -- and hopes to is expanding to 10,000. According to a Mobile Millenium press release, t
he project collects "traffic data from GPS-equipped mobile phones and estimates traffic conditions in real time."
If the Streetline and Mobiile Millenium ideas take hold, every car, and every parking space, could theoretically become a neuron-node in an ever-expanding sensory network. According to University of Montreal machine learning professor Yoshua Bengio, if artificial neural networks become vast and complex enough, they might produce reasoning
Once the first spark of intelligence fires, the planet may launch a campaign of vengeance against her human oppressors, toppling freeway cloverleaves, crushing auto malls, and felling bridges. Ironically, given that the circuitry of the planet's impending intelligence is being built upon new-fangled automobile infrastructure, humans' only defense may be to find a different form of transportation.