Your robot overlords part 46: Software never lies

As we all know, software and artificial intelligence is going to run the world and make all the decisions on our behalf, probably starting from a week next Tuesday. Downtime has long felt it is our duty to reveal precisely what sort of world this means we will be living in, and recently we had another glimpse of our future overlords.

Across America, citizens turn to the US Geological Survey (USGS) for notifications of earthquakes – a vital national safety service. At 4.51pm on 22 June, the USGS alert service sent out just such a warning – a 6.8 magnitude tremor off the California coast at Santa Barbara. That’s a pretty sizeable shake – enough to cause damage and potentially panic. Thank goodness, we hear you say, for the automation that brought such a timely warning to the populace.

Only, it turned out the alert was a bit late. More than 90 years too late in fact.

The USGS warning concerned an earthquake that took place in 1925. Unfortunately, by the time USGS realised its error, the original tweet had flown around Twitter. Worse still, the Los Angeles Times – the paper of record for the US west coast, uses an algorithm to automatically write stories based on USGS alerts. Not just fake news, but a fake writer too.

USGS and the LA Times quickly backtracked once the error was revealed, citing a software glitch that “misinterpreted” the 1925 quake as a “current event”.

Who needs Donald Trump’s tweets to start a global conflict? Just wait until Twitter hears the latest about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.