The movie Jurassic Park introduced the Law of Unintended Consequences into popular vernacular. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember Jeff Goldblum, playing a cynical mathematician, living with the results of said law as a Tyrannosaurus Rex chased him through the jungle.
The phrase has gained traction because nearly everyone has been subject to it. Just when you think you know all the answers, you find out you don’t. The U.S. Constitution was amended to prohibit alcohol sales in the 1920’s. It had the unintended consequence of strengthening organized crime. The introduction of air bags as a safety measure in cars had the unintended effect of causing more injuries to children who couldn’t withstand being hit by the air bags. Consequences can be beneficial too. Aspirin, a common headache medicine, has the unintended benefit of acting as an anti-coagulant in heart patients.
What we all know is that it’s impossible to innovate new products or make new rules that cover every possible outcome. Couple that with artificial intelligence (AI) and well-intended efforts can be catastrophic. Data breaches that are now common in the corporate world and major institutions of government, create inaccurate data that follows us around and has impact on credit scores, medical treatment and professional references. In many cases, the inaccurate data is unknown to us, and the decision processes are executed by unseen algorithms that are embedded in software.
Perhaps most egregious, ProPublica has reported on a study of the use of AI in predicting recidivism, the likelihood a convicted criminal will commit another crime. The AI was accurate only 60% of the time and showed a heavy bias against people of color. The output of the AI was used in sentencing recommendations. Where once a biased judge might affect hundreds of lives, now software that has incorporated his or her judgment might affect millions.
In my new novel, one of the characters has won a Nobel Prize for solving that problem. He has created an algorithm that detects bias and corrects it. Yes, it’s a novel – fiction! Yet, even he is challenged to create one that limits tech in a way that doesn’t destroy the world.
In 2049 America, he asks a sentient AI to finally solve the challenge of climate change. “Simple,” says the AI. “How about the CNO cycle?” The Carbon-Nitrogen-Oxygen cycle is a six-stage process that begins and ends with a stable isotope: Carbon-12. Along the way, it creates heat on the order of the Sun. In other words, it would burn up everything on the planet. And it would stop climate change dead in its tracks. Because there would be no climate.
Talk about unintended consequences!
So, how does our Nobel-winning mathematician solve the problem? You’ll have to buy the book to find out.