Can You Trust Your Toaster?

IT'S AN OFT-TOLD TALE IN science-fiction thrillers: A security system or flight controller goes berserk and threatens to coldly delete squishy biological life forms. But the plot might not be pure fiction. A growing number of scientists worry that machines might become so intelligent they'll gain the upper hand.

At the recent annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a researcher warned that a silicon revolution is probably inevitable. Smart machines could be looking down their noses at us in 15 to 20 years, says Roland S. Burns, an engineering professor at England's University of Plymouth.

The silicon takeover will start innocently enough. Take the kitchen. Next-generation refrigerators will automatically replenish food stocks, keeping track of what comes and goes with lasers that scan the bar codes on packages, and using telecom links to order more food. Then someone will write a dieters' program listing foods the fridge shouldn't order. Next thing we know, refrigerators may be dictating people's eating patterns. And similar trends will unfold in cars, factory machines, and most equipment built with chips.

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