Failsafe

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    I originally composed this essay in Summer 1989 and I have updated it only slightly.

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    That title is an explicit reference to one of the most popular books of 1962, one in which the author provides a fictional account of the failure of America’s "failsafe" nuclear-armed bomber force. Both the book and the movie made from it constitute a nightmare exposition of Murphy’s Law, the frivolous "law" of universal perversity that’s usually stated, "If anything can go wrong, it will". Usually expressed humorously, Murphy’s Law is a gentle reminder to us to be wary of engineering vanity of the kind that, in effect, sent the "unsinkable" White Star liner "Titanic" and 1500 of her passengers to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean on the ship’s maiden voyage in April of 1912. It’s a reminder that’s certainly appropriate here because what I’m proposing carries the potential to bring down upon Humanity far more misery and death than did either of the events, real and fictional, described above.

    Consider merely one feature of the Omnifex technology, its ability to produce food. The Irish know what happens when that part of technology fails. In the late 1840's Ireland’s potato crop failed several years in succession. The cause of the failure was a potato blight, a fungus that attacked the tubers and destroyed them. Because the potato had become the staple of the Irish diet the consequences of the blight were mass starvation, wide-spread disease, bloody riots, and the impoverishment of the Irish people as a whole. When we all have our Omnifices and are obtaining our food from them (among other things) we will want to shut down most agriculture so that Nature can reclaim land now under the plow. Taking that step will make us as dependent upon our Omnifices as the Irish were on their potatoes, so the consequences of the Omnifices failing will be the same ones that accompanied the potato blight, only on a much wider scale.

    Though several extraordinarily wet years aggravated its effects, the potato blight was so effective in its destruction primarily because all the potatoes in Ireland were descended from just a few plants brought from South America. The potatoes were clones of those original plants, themselves closely related, and were thus equally susceptible to the blight. Our Omnifices will also be clones, structurally identical duplicates of the original Omnifex. Will that make them all equally susceptible to some programming blight, something like the malware used by pranksters and criminals to scramble or destroy data in modern computers? Questions like that are going to have to be answered satisfactorily before we take any part of Humanity off traditional agriculture and make it dependent upon Omnifices for food.

    One obvious bit of insurance we can provide for ourselves is that of maintaining an active agriculture for several years after the introduction of Omnifices into society and shutting it down only gradually. When we all have our Omnifices robots will take over the work of running our farms, carrying out all the normal duties of planting, raising, and harvesting a crop. In the absence of any major Omnifex failures the robots will feed the harvested crops into Omniphages, thereby increasing the material wealth available to us through our Omnifices and taking just a little more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. As time passes and our confidence in the Omnifex technology grows more secure the robots will begin to shut down the industrial farms and begin restoring the natural flora and fauna to the land they occupy.

    That shutdown will be predicated on our belief that the Omnifex cannot and will not suffer a massive failure (and don’t we just hear the proverbial Murphy chuckling over that assertion?). How could we ever justify such a belief? We can start by examining the ways in which the Omnifex system can fail. The Omnifex has two basic modes of failure: it can lose its ability to produce any goods at all or it can produce goods that are malformed. Applied to the production of food, the first mode leads to famine and the second leads to malnutrition and/or poisoning.

    Certainly an Omnifex will suffer the first kind of failure if there’s any interruption of its supply of electricity and chemical soup. Preventing such interruptions and ending them when they occur anyway will be achieved through fairly standard civil engineering. Multiple redundancy is one ploy that engineers use to ensure that the inevitable failures in the production and distribution of electricity and water cause only temporary inconvenience instead of major disaster. Many independent sources of electricity and chemical soup will pour their products into a network of interconnected mains and distributaries to ensure, in like manner, that any failure in that system, such as an overload that shuts down a solar-power plant or a break in a chemical-soup main, will lead to no disruption in the flow of those resources into our Omnifices.

    A more likely cause of the first kind of failure will be a breakage of the Omnifex itself. As you might have gathered from the description provided in the previous essays, the Omnifex plate is a delicate mechanism. If you drop something on it, portions of the array of assemblers, channels, and so forth that cover its upper surface will be crushed and broken. That part of the plate will no longer work and the Omnifex itself may refuse to work at all simply because the damaged area interferes with its ability to fulfill your instructions.

    That’s a rather localized disaster, not the kind that puts whole populations at risk. If one of your Omnifices breaks, you can still use your other one until the first is repaired. If both of your Omnifices are broken at the same time (highly unlikely), you can obtain relief from your neighbors. However, almost as soon as one of your Omnifices breaks a team of robots will be hustling a new plate to your home to repair it. Any breakage will thus be repaired in a few hours. That kind of service will be enabled by the fact that teams of robots will be coming around periodically anyway and replacing the plates in your Omnifices, likely every few months at first.

    We can think of the Omnifex as a kind of robot plant, one that produces some truly strange fruit. Just as biological plants use sunlight and materials drawn from the soil and air to produce their particular fruits, so our Omnifices use electricity and chemical soup to produce the goods that we specify. Both kinds of plant, natural and robotic, perform their fruitful feats through large numbers of small, delicate, and, therefore, highly mortal atomic-scale mechanisms. Because such mechanisms are easily broken, biological plants eventually wear out, age, and die. Omnifices will do the same. Each new item extruded through the Omnifex plate’s surface will degrade the plate ever so slightly, causing a few atoms here and there to be knocked out of place or straining a small number of assemblers to the breaking point. At first that damage won’t be noticeable, but as it accumulates over time we’ll begin to notice subtle problems. That old bit about "solid" matter being mostly empty space is not only true of the arrangement of mass within individual atoms but is also true of the way atoms are put together in ordinary matter. Many substances contain large gaps among the collections of atoms that make them up, making what we consider some of the densest substances appear quite porous on the atomic scale. That fact gives the Omnifex a certain amount of inherent forgiveness of errors in producing substances. But eventually enough assemblers will be nonfunctional that the resulting gaps will have noticeable effects. Our Omnifices will create balloons that won’t stay inflated, certain foods that will feel a little too mushy, clothes that seem to tear a little too easily, and so on.

    Such degradation will be countered by periodic replacement of the Omnifex plates. Teams of robots will go from house to house on a schedule and replace aging Omnifex and Omniphage plates with fresh ones, taking the old ones to be autopsied and ‘phaged. The autopsies will reveal patterns of wear, knowledge that can be used to devise improvements in the Omnifex technology. We might even hope that eventually researchers will learn enough to devise an Omnifex capable of repairing and renewing itself.

    Of course the Omnifex plates that are used to create other Omnifex plates will be subject to the same process of gradual degradation. For that very reason we cannot use them to replace themselves. Such a scheme of replacement would certainly slow down the overall degradation of our Omnifex infrastructure but it would not stop the decline. Eventually the entire system of Omnifices and Omniphages would become nonfunctional and our civilization would die. To counter that eventuality robots and human researchers in laboratories around the world will continually repeat all the steps described in "Creating the First Omnifex", so every few years a whole new series of Omnifices will be brought into being. It is through that process of continual renewal that improvements suggested by the autopsies of old Omnifex plates will be incorporated into the Omnifex technology.

    The inevitable mechanical failures, then, can be minimized in their effects and made easily correctible. A system-wide failure of the first type can thus be made effectively impossible. But the second mode of failure is more subtle because it involves the flow of information within the system. Any scrambling of that information, whether accidental or deliberate, will cause the Omnifex to create malformed goods. If those goods are food, they could come out either non-nourishing or outright poisonous.

    Accidental glitches in the information used by our Omnifices won’t be a serious problem. Error-correcting codes similar to those used to ensure the integrity of computer data transmitted over today’s relatively noisy channels will certainly be used. The transmission channels themselves will be less noisy: partly to enable information to be transmitted at higher speeds, the system will embody the information as pulses of light in optical fibers rather than as pulses of electricity in copper wires, thereby rendering the integrity of the information immune to the kind of electromagnetic disturbances that sweep over Earth whenever the sun decided to blow off a few of its ultrahot flares. In addition, the computers that operate our Omnifices will be more intelligent than today’s machines, better able to recognize data that have been beglitched in much the way that we recognize "Oh, beautiful for specious skies..." as reflecting an error in the transmission of the lyrics to "America the Beautiful". The few rare glitches that do get past all of those safeguards are unlikely to be dangerous: random mutations of food-making instructions will most likely lead the Omnifex to create a disgusting mess that no one would be tempted to eat. That’s consistent with biologists’ observations that glitches in the DNA instructions for creating a living being (such as a fruit fly) almost always produce obviously deleterious manifestations: in humans they’re called birth defects.

    Deliberate tampering with the information in the Omnifex system is a different matter. In that case failures of the Omnifex will be orchestrated by human minds degraded by their own failures and thus will be exceptionally dangerous. To see what that kind of danger involves and how we might be protected from it let’s suppose that the Wicked Queen wants to murder Snow White through the Seven Dwarves’ Omnifex.

    The obvious ploy is for the Wicked Queen to use her own Omnifex to create the poisoned apple. She will use her culinary skills to create a truly delectable variety of apple, one that’s virtually irresistible, and then create a second version of it, a version containing a full gram of Princessnuff, one milligram of which is sufficient to rub out a fifty-kilogram princess. Having done that, she will transmit the instruction to the Ultimate Catalogue and memorize the codes that the Catalogue assigns to them. Being eager to avoid a charge of first-degree murder, she will not create the actual poisoned apple from her own Omnifex. Instead, she will create a copy of the unpoisoned version and take it with her for her encounter with Snow White.

    In this Omnifex-dominated future a high proportion of successful social encounters will originate in a statement like, "Guess what I found in the Omnifex?" Exploring the Ultimate Catalogue and sampling its products will be a popular pastime that will give us the means to participate in an even more popular pastime, an elaborate version of Show and Tell. It’s just that kind of encounter in which the Wicked Queen engages Snow White, offering to share the knowledge of the wonderful discovery she made. She shows Snow White the apple and shares a piece of it with her. As planned, Snow White is delighted and simply must have the code for this little piece of gastronomical heaven. The Wicked Queen provides her with the code for the poisoned version.

    As soon as she returns to the little house in the Enchanted Forest Snow White goes to the Omnifex and enters the new code. She wants to try the apple again in preparation for sharing it with her friends, the Seven Dwarves. The Omnifex dutifully creates the poisoned apple, but, being a good Asimovian robot, it beeps and flashes a warning, something like, "Food item contains poison! Do not eat!"

    It’s a simple safeguard. The Omnifex’s chemical database contains, among other properties, a list of the toxicity to humans and several species of common plants and animals (e.g. the family dog) of every chemical known to Humanity. Whenever an Omnifex is asked to create a food item its computer will use that list to calculate the toxicity of the created item based on the computer’s internal description of the person making the request. That simple act of prudence is not intended to protect us only from indirect homicidal assaults. Many natural foods, whose instruction sets will be created by putting samples of the foods through a fancy version of an Omniphage, contain quantities of poison. Potatoes, for example, belong to the nightshade family of plants and contain normally sublethal quantities of an alkaloid poison called solanine. Because we humans usually eat a wide variety of foods no single poison can build up to a near-lethal or lethal dose, but occasionally, for a variety of reasons, we binge on a single food and that can lead to difficulties. Many European peasants died of solanine poisoning after potatoes were brought from America in the Sixteenth Century because potatoes became virtually the only food that they ate. In the future people who go on single-food binges will receive plenty of warning from their Omnifices before their bodies can accumulate dangerous quantities of any poisons naturally (or not so naturally) occurring in their food.

    That’s such an obvious protection that we must assume that the Wicked Queen would try something more devious. When she creates the poisoned apple couldn’t she arrange for the Ultimate Catalogue to code it as a non-food item, one that would not trigger a toxicology analysis whenever an Omnifex creates a copy of it? Certainly she could. She need only specify that the poisoned apple is recreational equipment intended for a game called Splatterball (which she has contrived just for this little subterfuge) and the Ultimate Catalogue will assign to it a non-food code. But that in itself foils the Wicked Queen’s plot because food codes and non-food codes are significantly different from each other. Snow White should see immediately that she’s been given an improper code, though if she doesn’t, if she’s something less than bright, her robot companion will mention it and suggest, even insist on, asking the Omnifex to carry out a toxicology analysis when she goes to use the code.

    Well, the Wicked Queen won’t be foiled that easily. She’ll consider those possibilities and dismiss them as quickly as we did. Then she’ll devise a much more slitheringly devious plan. If the Omnifex insists on warning Snow White because Princessnuff is poisonous, then perhaps the Wicked Queen can bring success to her plot by reprogramming the database to make Princessnuff appear more benign. It seems to be a fairly simple matter of changing the toxic dose listing for Princessnuff from twenty micrograms per kilogram of victim to twenty grams per kilogram of victim, one million times bigger. If the Wicked Queen can do that, then the Omnifex will calculate Snow White’s fatal dose as one kilogram of Princessnuff and will thus ignore the actually fatal superlethal dose of one gram of Princessnuff in the poisoned apple. But how can the Wicked Queen modify the Omnifex’s database?

    It won’t be as easy as it is with today’s computers, in which data and instructions stored in memory can be erased through a few simple commands. Though the computers associated with individual Omnifices will use such erasable, reusable memories, the main database, the Ultimate Catalogue and all its parts, will be hard-coded, the information stored as permanent, irreversible changes in the physical properties, probably opacity, of the storage medium. Once information is recorded in the database it cannot be changed; it can only be updated.

    The system will work much as Wikipedia does. Anyone can add a contribution to the system, but it must be vetted by professionals before it is allowed to go live online.

    Updating of the database will be necessary because our knowledge is constantly changing. Some of our current "knowledge" is little more than educated guesses, some not so educated; some is based on errors; and some is speculative extrapolation across fact-deficient gaps. As our knowledge improves, older entries recorded in the database will not be erased and replaced by the newer knowledge; instead, the new knowledge will be recorded and flagged as superceding the old knowledge, which will remain in the database. If new information is obtained on the toxicity of some chemical, the new value of the toxicity will be recorded, according to computer logic, between the old value and the interface through which Omnifices read the information, so that the new value and its flag are read before the old value that has been superceded.

    The Wicked Queen does not want to change the toxicity of Princessnuff by updating the chemical database. If her plot were to succeed, her participation in the updating process would implicate her in the poisoning of Snow White. And, of course, her effort would not succeed. No individual will be allowed to update the public database without proper authorization any more than you or I could frivolously update the Sears Catalogue or the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. The only thing we can do to the public database is to add new knowledge, even if it’s a variation on something old, but we will not be allowed to update old knowledge unless the system recognizes us as the proper author (or proper successor to the author) of the old knowledge. To be recognized as a proper successor to the author of the toxicity listings that the Omnifices use the Wicked Queen would be required, among other things, to obtain a doctor’s degree in medicine, specializing in biochemistry, from a properly accredited college or university. Even if she were to fulfill all such requirements, her proposed update of the toxicity of Princessnuff, because it’s so large, would end up being rejected: the computer would demand a complete description of how she obtained her result so that it could ask several laboratories to confirm it through experiments of their own and, as you might guess, she can’t meet any such demand.

    What the Wicked Queen must try to do, then, is to make a lie out of what I said about information being unchangeable once it is recorded in the database. To achieve that goal she must somehow alter the appropriate records physically.

    She won’t be able to enter the data bank to do the job herself. Humans absolutely won’t be allowed into the vaults and several measures will ensure the security of that prohibition. First, humans will be barred from the bank’s grounds by robot guards and a security system that will be alert to aerial or tunneling attempts to intrude. Second, the vaults themselves will be so built that no human could move around in them even if they could get in (the vaults will be tended by robots the size of lap dogs). And third, there’s no way in: the only openings through which material things can enter the vaults will accommodate only chemical soup and fresh Omnifex plates (everything else needed in the vaults, such as robots and memory plates, will be created in the vault through the vault’s Omnifices).

    But the Wicked Queen doesn’t need to enter the vault herself: it occurs to her to think of using a proxy, a robot henchman created in place through the vault’s Omnifex. In that plan she would be doing pretty much what today’s hackers do when they electronically burglarize other people’s computers. If you think of a computer as a museum with art treasures stored behind locked doors, then you see that the access codes are like a set of keys that unlock the doors. A hacker, through his keyboard proxy, either steals a set of keys or picks the locks. Once he has thus gained entry to someone else’s computer the hacker is free to vandalize and/or rob his victim’s files. In much the same way the Wicked Queen would gain access to the computer that operates the data bank’s Omnifex and through it induce the Omnifex to make copies of the modified memory plate and the preprogrammed henchbot that she has designed. Once that’s done the henchbot would locate the true memory plate (the one that carries the toxicity data on Princessnuff), remove it, and replace it with the false plate. Then it would take the true plate and disappear into the vault’s Omniphage with it. If that happens, Snow White is doomed.

    First the Wicked Queen must design a suitably modified memory plate that will fit into and work in the public database and then design a henchbot that can move around in the vault without arousing suspicion. If the other robots in the vault discern the henchbot as being of a different design, they will pick it up and push it into the Omniphage before it can accomplish its mission. The specifications for the memory plates and robots in the vaults of the public database are, of course, not available to the public and the Wicked Queen can’t use the design specifications for the memory plates and robots in the vault that stores her personal database in the dungeon under her castle because they differ from the designs of the plates and robots in the public data bank. To get the information she needs she’s going to have to hack her way into the public database’s master computer, something she will have to do anyway to gain control of the vault’s Omnifex.

    Burglarizing an unguarded building with stolen keys or lockpicks is relatively easy. Burglarizing a building that has a highly intelligent, immovable robot guarding every entrance is another task altogether. Unlike today’s hackers, the Wicked Queen must get past a robot. The robot is the database’s master computer and it won’t sit up and do tricks for any hacker who jiggles its circuits. It will accept commands only from people authorized to give them, it will be very insistent in demanding proof of authorization, and it will have no patience with people who are not authorized to command it: any unauthorized person who attempts to give it a command will receive an immediate visit from a robot cop.

    Authorization to command the master computer requires a doctor’s degree in science or engineering at minimum. Certification in a number of skills may be required in addition. Further, authorization is not something we humans request: the master computer grants authorization to people it chooses based largely on its neural-net analysis of great leaders of the past, people such as George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King, Jr., Tecumseh, Goyathlay (Geronimo), Clara Barton, Ida B. Wells, and so on. The Wicked Queen is obviously not going to be selected, but she may try to deceive the master computer into recognizing her as someone who has been selected. In addition to acquiring the facial features (and that includes all of the characteristic muscular movements) of the person she’s impersonating, the Wicked Queen must also be able to display to the computer’s sensors that person’s retinal patterns, fingerprints, voice, and, if the technology is up to the task, DNA patterns (from a small blood sample taken from a randomly chosen part of her body). And even if she can pull off such an elaborate masquerade and get her phony plate inserted into the memory bank, her plot will still fail.

    Any time a memory plate is replaced in the data bank it will be checked with the data banks in other cities. If the Wicked Queen is operating out of Rockwood, Maine, then the master computer will have the plate compared to the equivalent plates in the vaults under Bangor and Portland. The scam will be discovered immediately and the bad plate will be disconnected from the system until it can be replaced with a proper copy of the original plate. Queries seeking information from the plate will be routed to other cities, so the Seven Dwarves’ Omnifex will be able to get the good information it needs to warn Snow White about the poisoned apple.

    All that emphasis on multiple redundancy at all levels in our Omnifex system is reminiscent of the rules of good agriculture. Irish agriculture failed tragically in the 1840's because it was not based on those rules: it was a monoculture (one kind of crop) of clones, a situation ripe for biological disaster. Nowadays, though, good agricultural practice is polycultural (more than one kind of crop) with wide genetic variety within any one crop. The use of multiple crops ensures that no single disease will destroy everything and the genetic variety ensures that even within the hardest hit crop some plants will survive. The Omnifex system will be protected from total failure in a similar way and once established should be at least as secure as conventional agriculture. In some parts of the world the Omnifex will free people from oppression by one of their oldest enemies, famine: an Omnifex, after all, cannot be wiped out by a plague of locusts.

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