Clippy Apocalypse

I am fairly involved in the worlds of virtual reality, robotics and artificial intelligence and have a strong interest in how they will alter the future of our industry. Our equipment is already being built in robotic factories, using artificial intelligence. But before we push ahead into a future where our “help” is robotic instead of human, let’s be cautious, lest we create the Terminator.

Remember that the Tech sector has been involved in trying to create virtual “help” for a long time. Anybody remember Clippy? He (or maybe she) was the animated paper clip that used to appear onscreen in Microsoft Office to suggest actions. This was a big advance, a whole new kind of context sensitivity that allowed Microsoft to leap out ahead of its competitors in the vital field of providing help we didn’t want. Clippy began almost all “help” sessions by walking onto your screen and saying the phrase that has become the bane of help systems everywhere: “It looks like you are trying to…” and then offering several options, which were usually irrelevant. My last interaction with Clippy was when he popped up to help while I was trying to figure out how to suppress him permanently: “It looks like you are trying to get rid of me.”

But I only drove him deeper into the Matrix, where he spawned his (her?) henchmen. Clippy has gotten even, and today his diabolical descendants are on us like the Zombie Apocalypse. They are all over the web, in our homes and even in our phones. They are already taking over. So let’s take a careful look at what we would have to work with in creating the “Techinator.”

First of all, Clippy is still there, lurking in the web. What’s worse, he has somehow acquired human help in his nefarious schemes. Now, when I am searching for products on the web, he (or she?!) pops up in the middle of the screen, always covering whatever it is that I am looking at. Oh, the “helpful” support bot calls itself “Elliot” or “Jasmine,” but I know it’s ol’ Clippy, because under the little cartoon of a human face it says: “Hi, I’m Elliott (or Jasmine). It looks like you are trying to…”

So I am supposed to text chat with Clippy until he decides I am weakened enough to turn over to his human sidekick? Fat chance. I still have a phone, so at least I can call his human minions directly.

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Except I can’t. Clippy is hiding there, too. My new phone will “intelligently” return my friends’ text messages, relieving me of the burden of communicating with my fellow humans. I’m surprised they don’t all start with “It looks like you are trying to send me a text message…” So now we can all just go on chatting with the help bot, secure in the knowledge that, while Elliott/Jasmine and their fellow bots frustrate us on the web, at least our phones are talking to each other. But Clippy is just lulling us into a false sense of security while he mounts the next stage of the invasion. Because Clippy is going mobile and this time instead of a human face, he’s hiding behind man’s best friend.

Have you seen Aibo, the Sony robot dog?

(Full disclosure: Let me say that on this particular piece of robot technology, I am not a neutral observer. I like robots, but I love dogs. So I call this one “the Abomination.” There are some things where, like “Artificial Intelligence,” I would much rather have the real thing.)

Now, admittedly, “Clippy’s Best Friend” is cute (while decidedly not cuddly). But it is obvious that he is the scout for the machine invasion that will eventually bring us the “Techinator.”

We have already discovered how insecure these IoT devices are, with Amazon’s “security” staff able to send somebody a recording — of somebody else’s house! And now this hellhound has been given legs and a Cat6-like tail. He reports to Clippy, following you around the house and not only listening to your every word, but taking pictures and posting them to its own private web page, where you (and Clippy) can be amused. Can they be serious? I forsee a future where the human race is blackmailed and held hostage by our cold, unfeeling pets.

So we need to take stock of how our own technology is actually working, before we rush ahead in creating robotic roadies and artificially intelligent call centers. Will they gossip among themselves about us? Will they unionize? Will they listen to us and report to Clippy? Will they listen to us at all?

Because Clippy is setting us up for the ultimate tragedy — where our robot dogs are hit by our driverless cars.

And, for this month, I will leave you with that haunting thought, because Clippy just popped up to say, “It looks like you are trying to end this column…”