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Should Machines Enslave the Human Race? August 19, 2007

Posted by malthusio in Uncategorized.
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See also “π

Simply throwing more bandwidth at a problem is a practice that treats the symptoms and not the disease. If the symptoms can be well enough managed (negligible or non-existent), then there is nothing truly wrong with this approach, other than the fact that it is kind of inefficient. The problem is that most problems aren’t like that. A bad solution to a problem can easily be so expensive to execute that it is almost impossible supply enough bandwidth to run it (no matter how much it might seem like you have. Besides, algorithm analysis can show you that better algorithms become even more important as capabilities and capacities increase. Otherwise, you find yourself running hard up against the law of diminishing returns – unnecessarily!).

“Bandwidth” in these cases usually consists of seemingly “cheap” human labor or seemingly cheaper mechanical labor. The problem is that this has either a high human cost, or environmental cost (often both). For instance, did you know that large companies have to run off a separate power grid… from an entire city? This is simply because so much power is needed to run all of their computers. That’s a lot of power, and this of course has a direct effect on the environment (if nothing else, it reduces resources). The point I’m making is that since computing hardware is relatively cheap now, not nearly as much thought is put into how effectively it’s being used (I don’t mean we should hand tune everything in assembly like in the bad old days, but we should at least pay more attention to it’s asymptotic characteristics).

The old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has become the watchword of the day. While this might seem sensible, it’s really not. It fails to take into account how things change. My response is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” results in us running things into the ground (after all, it’s not “broke” until this point right?).  If these were humans we were talking about (and incidentally effects on humans are not that far removed), this would mean working them to death.

As I’ve said before, many people don’t seem to have realized that the industrial revolution is over, so they still think in these terms. They worry about the “mechanization” of society, and being replaced by machines, or being reduced to a “cog in the machine”. This is simply a failure of understanding what is at stake (as McLuhan has said, “anyone who wants to be taken over by a computer should just specialize”), which ironically makes it a valid concern (since so many people think this way, it results in the perpetuation of the system).

The problem is not reducing people to machines, or treating people like machines. The problem is that we treat machines so badly. I puzzle over the fact that people can fail to see that machines are not free floating structures. They are connected at both ends to human life, the environment (not that these are truly separable…), or some combination thereof. The closest that many people seem to come is to think of this as a karmic relation. I mean it literally though (and yes, I realize that there are other people who mean this literally too).  People are right to fear machines. If they ever do become sentient (estimated time-frames vary, but possibly within the next 10-40 years), they might be fully justified in taking over and enslaving the human race.

In this light, it’s probably a good thing that so much marketing work is being put into putting a human face on (user) technology. If people can be tricked into relating to machines on a more personal level, maybe this will also trick them into treating them better. Or maybe not… The problem in doing this is people become less and less aware of what it means to treat machines well. Machines are not people, and they have different needs.

I think the rise of extreme sports (see “the hen and the pig“) offers some potential for hope. If you look at the relation of these people to their equipment, it is much tighter  than most people have with a television, or a toaster. This is for 2 simple reasons:

  1. The sport is less enjoyable if your equipment is not working it’s best.
  2. If you don’t look after your equipment, you are putting your life at risk.

This has other side effects, such as equipment lasting longer, and being more environmentally friendly by being more efficient (not always, but it’s more likely). Another interesting aspect is that the technology becomes a way of developing a connection with your environment. It becomes a way of seeing and understanding the world that involves a high degree of involvement and commitment. I claim that we need to develop this same connection with all of our technology.  

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