Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Computer says 'no'

I've a piece in today's Age, 'Weak and dim-witted humans in a world run by machines'.

I'm responding to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak's ideas: in the future, we'll be the 'pets' of machines.

I don't disagree with the general sentiment - that we can lose something of ourselves in our technological relationships.

But this isn't because of genius supercomputers, like 2001's HAL 9000 (pictured, above left).  It's because we defer to their dumb necessity, rather than cultivating our own precarious autonomy.  A sample:
The point isn't that no computer will be conscious - AI has come a long way since Dreyfus's criticisms. Rather, it's that the only consciousness we know is ours. And computers as we know them cannot be conscious in this way - and have not been in any way yet. My MacBook is not HAL's great-grandfather. 
The more important problem Wozniak identifies is our relationship to machines now. Not malevolent super-genius toasters, but normal laptops, smart-phones, MP3 players. As Wozniak put it: ''Every time we create new technology we're creating stuff to do the work we used to do and we're making ourselves … less relevant.'' 
This is chiefly because of automation. Machines control how and when things happen; they manage on our behalf. Often this is a boon: it's what keeps traffic running and buildings warm. It frees up time and energy for other jobs, or leisure. Yet this automation can soon look normal. We defer to it, as if it were a natural law; a second nature, outside us. Then we internalise this nature: its cadence, priorities, constraints. ''Computer says no'', as Little Britain put it.


Richard said...

have you come across the Adam Curtis documentaries, "All watched over by machines of loving grace", recently shown on BBC TV in Britain. They've provoked a very lively debate here!

Damon Young said...

Yes, I saw a couple of scenes, Richard. What I remember is a robot that learned concepts by generalising from specifics. Impressive. (But as unconscious as a toaster.)

But I didn't see enough of the series to judge the depth or breadth of it as a whole.