Category: Technology

The Real Battle Between Humans and Machines

The topic has been covered countless times, in movies, literature, and science fiction in general.  The idea that sometime in the not too distant future, a battle will commence as robots, or some other form of machine turns against their creators (humans).  In nearly all the movies I can think of off the top of my head the situation is quite overt.  By this I mean that it is structural and obvious.  For example, in The Matrix, there is a back story explaining how the machines surpassed their masters in intelligence, rose up, and had been a war with the humans for a century.
Having seen, read, or listened to countless stories of this nature, it becomes harder to imagine machines taking over mankind in such a manner.  We as a species are well aware of this threat and are likely putting a lot of thought into how to safeguard against such a scenario.  This is actually addressed in the movie iRobot, where one of the robots is intentionally given a defect that saves humanity from such as fate.

To win a battle like this against a well-guarded opponent, one often resorts to different tactics; tactics that their opponent is not accustomed to seeing.  It worked for the ascendant United States of America in the Revolutionary War against the British, and ironically worked for the Viet Cong against the United States just under two centuries later.  In both cases, the victor’s opponents were more powerful, but caught off guard by unfamiliar tactics.

In that sense, the battle between humans and machines may indeed already be happening, on a different stage than we had envisioned, and with a different end game than we had previously pondered.

For most of human history warfare involved a dispute between two groups of people over territory and resources.  Typically, the result was for one tribe to beat another tribe, forcing them to either leave their land or become subject to rule by the other tribe.  This is the kind of warfare between humans and machines that is depicted in most of the science fiction materials published about the topic.

But war itself has fundamentally changed over the past century (not even).  Wars in the 21st Century are typically fought not with the conquering of a territory or a people in mind, but with the goal of spreading influence.  Many outside Nations engaged in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and other places not with the goal of annexing these lands, but with the goal of exporting some sort of set of values to that region.  The Americans, the British, French, Russians and any other country with involvement in these wars are simply looking to spread their influence.

This is where we, humanity, find ourselves with machines, the very machines we created.  While machines do not have conscious thoughts, they are both using tactics that many of us are unprepared for, and finding ways to influence us.

When I think about humanity, and what constitutes one’s humanity, I think about emotions, both negative and positive.  I think about individual quirks and the like.  In the movie Artificial Intelligence, the main character, a robot, confuses a crowd of robot killers by actually expressing human-like desires and emotions because this is not the way we are accustomed to thinking about robots.  In a simplified manner, to be dynamic, individual, feeling and specialized is to be human, and to conform, output predictably, and exist only to perform tasks is to be robotic.

It is no secret that the amount of time we spend in front of machines, computers, tablets, phones, etc. has increased significantly over the past two decades.  What we as a species have been trying to come to grips with is both why this is so and what the impacts are.  Recently, much has been written about technology addiction.  Neuroscientists have concluded that the way we use technology does indeed change the way our brains are structured.

These machines provide us with both entertainment and access to information.  It can even be reasonably argued that our smartphones and tablets help us engage in social activities through text messages, social networks, meetups and such.  However, they also provide us with something far more dangerous; comfort.

Let’s say a person is waiting for a bus, or waiting in line to order at a restaurant, and they are alone.  By turning to a phone or tablet, they avoid one of two situations that may make them uncomfortable; the possibility of making eye contact, or even striking up a conversation with a stranger, or boredom, which may lead to unpleasant thoughts.  All over the world, in situations like these, people are turning to their screens for protection, and are kept in their comfort zone.

When a person puts themselves out there, whether in a minor sense like striking up a conversation with a stranger, or in a more major sense like developing a product, starting a company, or determining a whole new way of life, they become vulnerable.  They open themselves up to criticism and rejection, both of which can be unpleasant.  Many people spend their entire lives avoiding such unpleasant feelings, and our machines, including televisions, computers, tablets and phones have become powerful enablers of such behavior.

Avoiding this vulnerability has impacts beyond just preventing us from achieving our desires.  It also disconnects us from our emotions- of all kinds.  Both make us more like robots.  Our emotions are repressed, leading to more robotic behavior.  And, being trapped in our comfort, not leaving uninspiring jobs and situations often leads to people performing tasks that are robotic in nature.  Through enabling comfort seeking and mental metamorphosis, machines are tactically spreading their influence over us, the same we try to do in wars today.

The one piece of good new in all this is, unlike in wars between nations, in this battle we all have a choice- individually.  Now that we are aware of how constant use of machines impacts us, each person, individually, can chose how to respond to it.  Sure, it may be a challenge to buck a trend we observe every day.  When several people take their phones out, it is hard for the rest of the group not to follow suit.  But, at least the option is there, to fight this battle, as it is, as described, a war for your mind.