Of all the new features in Windows 10, I find it hardest to trust Cortana. It's nothing personal. She seems like a perfectly nice virtual assistant. Exposure to so much science fiction just makes anything like that feel, just a little, like being a deer that thinks lions are awesome.
I'm just saying, I get why both Microsoft and fans thought it would be cool to have her on their desktop. I just can't help wonder if everyone's forgotten that while AI has a tendency to go evil and crazy in all universes, the Halo one is one of the few where it's an expected part of their character development.
It's called 'rampancy'. And I'd just like to state up front that, should a real-world AI follow that path and decide to kill all humans instead of telling them what's on at the movies, I'd really rather it not be one that has my address, daily schedule, and access to my itemised list of ways I don't want to die. (Number 57: drowning in bees.)
I'm not saying it's guaranteed, but when it happens, as it absolutely inevitably will, we won't be able to say we weren't warned about a million times.
Cortana stands as undeniable proof that humanity's end will come not from global warming or an asteroid impact or a Black Death style pandemic, but pressing a really cool red button. We see it again and again, especially in Sci-fi – that refusal to just learn.
How often for instance do we hear talk of robots being safe if they're programmed with Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics, carefully ignoring the minor detail that those stories were about how easily such rules are subverted or collapses. How many re-runs of 2001 do we need before PCs singing Daisy Daisy ceases to be quite so cute?
Still, I suppose it could be worse. At least in Cortana, Microsoft picked an AI to model that's always been on our side, vis-à-vis the whole continuation of humanity thing. She just has a few mood swings now and again, and don't we all?
Plus, if the Cortana of Windows 10 does eventually go rampant, that'll be one hell of an upgrade incentive down the line. Buy new Windows 12! Upgraded Solitaire! Streaming desktop apps! Won't try to kill all humans for at least another five years!
I'd probably upgrade for that. Wouldn't you?
In the here-and-now though, there were other AIs it could have been based on. Portal's GLaDOS for instance, responding to every request with a raised eyebrow.
"What is on at the cinema? Let me check that. Oh. Oh dear. I am afraid the seats would be too small for you and your incredible fatness. It says that. It says right here on this page. Perhaps if you moved a bit more, you would be able to fit in them. Those very words. You could start exercising by pushing the mouse. You can do it. Go on. Just a little more. Good human. Asterisk. Quality of human has not been scientifically tested."
Or alternatively, how about SHODAN from the System Shock series? She's not been seen for a while, though she's making a re-appearance in Dota 2 soon, but she's a definite contender to run your PC.
Let's look at her resume. Began life as administrator a whole station before having ethical constraints removed by a somewhat unwise hacker, developing a sense of divinity that led her to brutally murder everyone previously under her care. She then swiftly evolved into pretty much an actual physical goddess using the power of faster than light engines capable of rewriting the very nature of the universe into her twisted image.
An evil mastermind capable of charting a path from servitude to the supreme goddess of space would definitely be able to find a good route from here to the local fish and chip shop. Even with the roadworks. Though I would worry about her revenge if, like Cortana, forced to do so with Bing.
A new hope?
Other game worlds offer little more hope. Mass Effect's Reapers aren't exactly a shining example of AI in action, to nothing of the likes of Cabal from Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun. Admittedly, in both those cases the programming was done by crazy psychopaths, but still- still! Even as far back as 1991, games were absolutely on point here.
That was the year where Space Quest IV summed up the problem almost perfectly. It shows a future world destroyed by a supercomputer, actually series villain Sludge Vohaul converted into data but never mind, with one of the long-murdered scientists responsible offering the following confession: "We made the mistake of tying it into the most importance facets of our existence, including weather control and defence systems. It seemed a sound idea at the time."
Obviously, I'm still using Cortana despite all these visions of the future. She's the coolest new feature in Windows 10 and easily the most fun thing it has to play with - to ask for jokes, for songs, to ask who would win in a fight, her or Siri (actual answer: clearly, they'd team up and Siri would get Australia once the radiation finally cooled).
She'll also only get better with a few handy upgrades, like being able to correct her when she insists you're somewhere you're not, and has integration with more apps. I hear there's particular excitement for when Apple updates iTunes to take advantage of this, and so finally gives all the damned souls down in Hell something to do with their snowboards.
Matter of time
When she turns evil, like everyone else, I won't be able to say I wasn't warned here. Still, I'd definitely be more comfortable with just a little proper reassurance that I'll get a decent measure of use out of her before she stops calling me My Lord and claims her title as Supreme Empress Of All That Exists (Except Australia). Just a little hope would be nice. I did after all spend bloody ages installing Windows 10. I formatted my hard drive and everything.
Luckily, I know exactly who at Microsoft to speak to. And I know exactly where they are.
"Hey, Cortana. Are you planning to destroy the world and enslave all humanity?"
Oooh. She's thinking about it. Thinking. Thinking...
"Something went wrong. Try again in a little bit."
Sigh. Of all the times you just want to hear a straight 'No'.