Could an AI android live forever? What, like your other IT devices?

You'd be lucky if it survives until next Thursday

Alicia Vikander and Sonoya Mizuno in creepy AI bot movie Ex Machina (2014). Pic: A24/ Universal Pictures

Something for the Weekend, Sir? There is a graveyard in my office.

Theorists have often sought to explain what happens to lost socks and mused on the possible inter-dimensional escape routes taken by ballpoint pens. Some researchers have even conducted an epidemiological study into lost teaspoons. I, however, know exactly where crackly earphones and error-prone hard drives go to die: they end up at the back of the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet.

I'm no hoarder, mind. In the case of hard drives, for example, it makes sense that one should remove failing hardware to a secure location for subsequent disposal in an appropriate manner dictated by good data protection practice.

That is, I store the broken drives until I have a spare afternoon to open each of their cases and obliterate the innards with a hammer.

Obviously this can't be done straight away after removing a problematic drive on account of the immediate environmental impact of such a method of disposal. Fellow workers risk being distracted by the loud banging, airborne splinters of razor-sharp shards of metal travelling in all directions at 300,000km/sec, the noise of me screaming "BASTARD BASTARD BASTARD" etc. So I keep stacking them up until I find a convenient moment to dispose of them – roughly once every seven years.

Earphones are worse. Although individually a set of little stereo phones occupy less space in the drawer than other broken devices, there are disproportionately far more of them. Earphones drop dead so frequently and with such woeful inevitability that I wonder if a suicidal countdown is a mandatory feature of audio electronic patents.

At any one time I ensure I have two sets available plus one backup pair, especially when travelling. On more than one occasion I have been forced to give up on both active sets and be forced to crack open the shrink-wrap on the third, all within the space of a three-hour flight or train journey.

Come to think of it, audio electronics do tend to fail at the very moment you expect to rely upon them the most. I can think of countless examples. There was that occasion as a teenager when I invited a bunch of friends around to the house to listen to a new album I'd bought and wanted to show off about, only for the left speaker to begin intermittent farting shortly into Track 1, cutting out à la Norman Collier throughout Track 2 and settling into a constant buzz by Track 3.

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Or when I purchased my first CD-Audio player ("Includes free Compact Disc album!") which worked perfectly when it came to boring myself shitless playing the bundled free copy of bloody Dire Straits' Brothers in Bloody Arms but broke down the moment I excitedly pressed Play for the first time on my first-ever personal CD purchase. In those days, CD players were rare and relatively expensive so I had to send mine to the manufacturer for repair rather than have it instantly replaced at the shop. And while some may say this was a blessing, it was another eight weeks before I got to hear a single note of Bill Nelson's mind-bending rarity Map of Dreams.

Now I think of it, there was that time I had to endure a lonely, time-critical 18-hour drive across Europe all by myself in utter boring silence, the car's stereo having chosen to break down five seconds after I set off. When I arrived at my destination, I borrowed a hammer and disposed of the offending device straight away in the accepted manner.

Such stories came back to mind while I was reading Volume 5 of French-language sci-fi graphic novel series Androïdes this week. It begins with a super-advanced android crash-landing on a planet populated by primitives and who then reconstructs its smashed-up self using the raw materials it finds – such as those aforementioned primitives.

You may find sci-fi childish and irritating already but I find this particular sci-fi trope particularly annoying: that androids, not being organic and therefore not destined to grow old and die, will live forever. Well-known examples such as Steven Spielberg's movie A.I. and Osamu Tezuka's manga Mighty Atom centre on this essentially daft conceit, allowing the authors to explore the emotional and psychological aspects of a self-aware computer inside a humanoid-styled vehicle outlasting its creators and possibly the human race itself.

I would like to invite fantasy authors and screenwriters – not Tezuka or Asimov, they're dead – to take a peek at the electronics at the back of my bottom drawer.

Far from living forever, androids would be lucky to survive until next Thursday before triggering a TITSUP* subroutine. Computers, electronics, machines in general… they all spontaneously fall to bits and require insane levels of constant maintenance just to keep chugging along. And if your robot arms have fallen off, how would a self-repairing robot re-attach them? Improvise some wooden nails using your robot feet and robot teeth and tap them in using your robot forehead?

Just imagine Spielberg's tired movie clichés applied to a more realistic vision of AI. Picture a miserable graveyard under the pouring rain, men dressed in black, women in hats and veils, all holding umbrellas, everyone standing in a circle as a vicar reads some verses from a pocket Bible. And one by one, they shuffle to the front, whisper "Goodbye, old friend" and toss a pair of broken earphones into the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet.

The self-repairing and self-replicating nature of the organic world is very much under-rated in my opinion. I cut my finger, say "ow", suck it a bit and maybe the bleeding stops after a minute or two. An android cuts its finger and it'll be leaking WD-40 all over the place for hours until it squeaks to a – very possibly terminal – halt.

I go snowboarding and break a shoulder; a nurse helps reset it and, within days, the bones have already begun happily knitting themselves back together long before I get bored of watching Homes Under The Hammer. An android breaks its shoulder and an army of engineers have to retool spare parts in a purpose-built factory in South Korea before shipping them out with a team of skilled technicians to rebuild the shoulder, run exhaustive tests, tweak the performance as necessary, and make themselves sick one evening by trying to eat hamburgers "like the locals".

Treat your androids like that creepy bearded fat guy in Ex Machina and they'd be broken all the time.

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No wonder Ghost In The Shell's Major Kusanagi spends half the time in the repair shop (i.e. hospital) getting something or other fixed, replaced or upgraded. It's a painfully recurrent story theme throughout the GITS manga, anime and even that recent live-action movie that suggests to me that author Masamune Shirow probably has a bottom drawer full of old earphones too.

And don't get me started on other electronics. Mice, keyboards, USB cables, bastard printers, bastard NAS enclosures, bastard remote control handsets, bastard bastard bastard Sky HD+ boxes… everything. Personally I have a big problem with Ethernet routers which inexplicably seem to die on me even more frequently than anything that has actual moving parts.

Build me an android tomorrow and – road-crossing hazards aside – we'll soon see who between the two of us outlives the other. If nothing else, it'll begin to slow down much earlier than I will because the manufacturer will have programmed a deceleration into its OS to compensate for battery performance decay.

The bloom of youth will always pass but I reckon I'll keep going long after those lithium flowers have faded.

Besides, I'm the one wielding the hammer.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Due to an imminent house move to a new country within days of you reading this, he has been forced to empty the filing cabinet completely. Half a day of smashing metal was followed by a drive down to the local recycling centre where, to his surprise and disappointment, there is no skip labelled "EARPHONES". Because, you know, really there ought to be. @alidabbs

* Total Inability To Survive Utile Purpose

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