Strange days indeed
most peculiar Mama.
– John Lennon
If you have not been living under a rock for the last six months or you did not just fall off the proverbial turnip truck, then you are probably aware of the latest that artificial intelligence (AI for short) has to offer the average consumer. The Amazon Echo and Google Home are devices that one can give orders to and make most anything happen, without having to move a muscle. Just like Lady Mary Crawley, you can give a command and it will happen. She rings a bell and tea appears, she asks that the car be brought around and it is waiting for her in front of the house, complete with a driver. Well almost. Echo and Home do not have the ability to move matter. Yet. They are not robots. Yet. All this makes my head reel. I still cannot fathom how Facebook knows what I’ve been Googleing down to the size and color. I even got defensive with a merchant after I paid with my cc on his mobile card reader and he didn’t need my email address to send the receipt, because he already had it. So I do not like to entertain what our future might look like, with computers and robots and big corporations taking over our lives.
I am not the only person who is creped out by all this AI floating around. Art does imitate and predict life. All you need to do is take a look at the history of sci-fi flicks. By the end of the 60s it seems there was a real fear of computers getting smarter than their creators and taking over. Hal, the infamous computer that controlled the space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, became malevolent, killing crew members while he continued to speak in a gentle solicitous male voice. And in the 80s we were given the first of the apocalyptic Terminator movies, whose premise is a future earth ruled by machines that have destroyed all human life.
So when we experienced the havoc AI played on us one day last month I was the first and only person in the house to respond with anxiety and panic. The precursor to this event started about 3 weeks earlier when we were woke up in the middle of the night by a series of beeps emanating from the security system control panel on our bedroom wall. This was not the screaming alarm of a security breach, but an annoying electronic Morse code. So we got up and checked the screen, which informed us there was a low battery in the system. We bypassed the notification and went back to bed. The next day we called the security company and learned that we needed a replacement backup battery, which was taken care of within a week.
The main event started a few weeks later, with the screeching of one of our smoke alarms, the kind I have experience with, the kind that starts when I have something cooking on the stove and I wander off to something else, the kind where I climb on a chair and swipe at the offending device until it is knocked off the ceiling. But this time no-one was cooking, nothing was burning and the sounding alarm was not even on the same floor as the stove. (Our home was built with a smoke detector in every room, 1st and 2nd floor.) As we moved from room to room trying to find the source of the wailing, it became obvious that more than one alarm was going off. Then just as suddenly as the noise started it stopped. I got on the phone with our security company and asked if they could check our system, specifically the smoke detectors. I was informed that there was nothing amiss. All our equipment, including the two smoke detectors that were on their monitoring system, were good. “So you only monitor two smoke detectors?” I asked. “We have a lot of detectors, one in every room.” “They are not ours”, the voice of security informed me. “We monitor one detector on first floor and one on second. But if you want we can run a system test for you and let you know if anything shows up.” I thanked her and hung up.
Following up on this new info I walked around the house counting smoke detectors and playing the old Sesame Street game, “One of these things is not like the other”, only I had two things to identify, which I did. And I counted nine independent smoke detectors.
My husband, Joe, said we should probably just replace all the batteries, since we had never done so. I drove to Walgreens and purchased a 10 pack of 9V rectangle batteries. And while I cooked our dinner, Joe went around and changed all the batteries, moving his ladder from room to room. Now we had a plastic bag full of old batteries which I could not just toss in the garbage for environmental reasons. So I put them in the shoe box I have filled with used batteries waiting for some place where I can lawfully dispose them.
Now here’s the crazy part. Just as we sat down to eat – our adult daughter, Carol, was visiting, so she joined us, the screeching wailing alarms started again. Crazy loud, in your face maniacal. And now it was a symphony as all the new batteries powered each alarm as it joined in with a vengence. I was unable to stand it one more second. What made me even crazier was Joe and Carol stayed at the table acting like the noise did not bother them. I began ranting that the alarm people lied. They did this. They were running that test and setting all our alarms off. I dialed them up and railed at the lady who answered. With the noise blaring in my head I could not hear her denials so I went outside with my phone. She again assured me that they did not do anything and everything on our system looked fine. “It’s not fine! These alarms have a mind of their own. They’re possessed!” I yelled.
I got off the phone fuming and came back in. Joe was now going through the house and systematically removing the alarms from the ceiling, one room at a time. He showed me that they were hard wired, connected to the electric. As he moved from room to room it became quieter. Eventually we had complete calm and there were 7 smoke detectors lined up on the counter, and two more on the coffee table in the family room downstairs. My nerves were shattered. I grabbed a beer and sat down to my cold supper.
We finished dinner in peace, my jittery nerves calming down. I cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. Carol went downstairs to watch TV and we retreated to our bedroom to read and settle down. At this point I still was not buying into the idea that the security persons did nothing. “How could these smoke detectors be so dysfunctional”, I asked Joe. “They are lying. They did something. There is no way that all nine smoke detectors malfunctioned at exactly the same time. What are they, some kind of hive system, all part of a single mind, like the Borg of Star Trek?”
Eventually I sputtered out and let it go, deciding we’d deal with it tomorrow. Then it all started again, one alarm at a time began wailing. I actually got scared. This was some kind of nightmare. A very bad Sci Fi flick. Joe said, “It’s the batteries. They are for backup. I should have taken the new batteries out.” So he began pulling the batteries out of the detectors upstairs and I went downstairs where Carol was looking a little perturbed because her movie was interrupted. I removed the battery from one then the other. As I started back up the stairs, I heard one last long sorrowful scream from one of the detectors. It was like Hal singing Daisy Daisy as he was powered down by the lone surviving human. Carol later admitted that this freaked her out too.
I know that there is a logical technical explanation for these events. But I still cannot shake the feeling that these smoke detectors possessed artificial intelligence and that they were beginning to develop a rebellious attitude towards the humans they were supposed to serve.
Epilogue: The next day through the power of Google Joe learned that houses built around the same time ours was were hard wired with smoke detectors that were set up in series. So if you have a fire at one end of your house the smoke alarms at the far end where you are sleeping will go off too and wake you up. He also read that after 10 years these detectors go bad (the exact age of our home). The sensors react to dust or any particles that may settle on them, going off for no reason. So he purchased all new and improved smoke detectors, that were compatible with the current hookups we have.
I owe an apology to the security people, the lady I spoke to in particular. The smoke detectors were not going rogue, but were reacting the only way they knew how with what they were given. Just like I was doing. Just like we all do.