Drones and Automated Trading Systems

This week I reread William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive for the umpteenth time. It’s the final book of the Sprawl trilogy which started with the more famous Neuromancer. This time, there were some lovely resonances between the books and the world of today, almost 25 years after it was published.

One detail that jumped out at me was the emotional resonance of drone surveillance:

She was accompanied, on these walks, by an armed remote, a tiny Dornier helicopter that rose from its unseen rooftop next when she stepped down from the deck. It could hover almost silently, and was programmed to avoid her line of sight. There was something wistful about the way it followed her, as though it we5re an expensive but unappreciated Christmas gift.

Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), pps 14-15

 A drone pilot and his partner, a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera, observe the habits of a militant as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits his neighbors. They then try to time their strike when, for example, his family is out at the market.

“They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone pilots. “At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.”

— A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away, The New York Times, July 29th, 2012

And while we don’t yet live in a world where Artificial Intelligences control major corporations, we have started talking about things as if we do:

She remembered Porphyre once maintaining that major corporations were entirely independent of the human beings who composed the body corporate. This had seemed patently obvious to Angie, but the hairdresser had insisted that she’d failed to grasp his basic premise. Swift was Sense/Net’s most important human decision-maker.- Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), page 123

An automated stock trading program suddenly flooded the market with millions of trades Wednesday morning, spreading turmoil across Wall Street and drawing renewed attention to the fragility and instability of the nation’s stock market.

Traders on Wednesday said that a rogue algorithm repeatedly bought and sold millions of shares of companies like RadioShack, Best Buy, Bank of America and American Airlines, sending trading volume surging. While the trading firm involved blamed a “technology issue,” the company and regulators were still trying to understand what went wrong.

“The machines have taken over, right?” said Patrick Healy, the chief executive of the Issuer Advisory Group, a capital markets consulting firm.

Flood of Errant Trades Is a Black Eye for Wall Street, The New York Times, August 1, 2012

Science fiction isn’t terribly reliable at predicting the future, exactly. But sometimes it does a nice job of predictng what the future will feel like.

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