Image via Wikipedia
There is something profound happening, here — something with implications far beyond the world of Donkey Kong:
For example, let’s say you’re jumping Donkey Kong through a particularly difficult level. Die eight consecutive times and a pop-up screen will ask if you want to activate Super Guide. Once initiated, you can then watch a computer-controlled doppelganger navigate the level for you. At any time, players can regain controls with the push of a button — or what the heck, just let the guide finish the level for you.
Some might worry about whether an auto-pilot function is cheating (or whether it makes computer games an even bigger waste of time than they already are.) If you let the machine take over, you’re assuming a passive role. In such a role, your ability to think and act — your very participation — no longer matter.
I wonder if such worries are akin to worrying that calculators might weaken our math skills — which was a big concern a few decades ago when they were first introduced into classrooms. Or maybe it’s like worrying that spelling checkers will make us less literate. Of course, spelling checkers don’t typically write paragraphs (or entire essays) for students. And I’ve not heard of a calculator taking over and finishing anyone’s SATs for them.
Isn’t it interesting that no one has ever worried (that I’ve heard, anyway) that GPS systems might serve to dull our innate ability to find things? And what about this?
Where’s the worry that we’re going to lose our crucial parallel parking skills? Oh, wait; it’s right here: the top comment on this Youtube page is someone grousing that humanity has become “too dang lazy.”
I’m not so sure. That “laziness” is what we invented technology for in the first place: to give us leverage. Technology exists to put things that are outside the sphere of our capability into that sphere and to make the activities that are inside that sphere easier and more productive.
If some computer games become completely machine-driven with no user interaction (a scenario I find highly implausible) then what you’ve got is essentially a person watching a really uninteresting movie — or at least it would be uninteresting to me. It’s not a sign of human evolutionary regression, it’s just an instance of one entertainment medium falling back to an earlier form.
But most gamers don’t play games just to “see how it ends.” They want to get there.So what we’re seeing with self-playing games is an enhanced collaboration between the user and the machine. In a gaming context, having the machine take over or show you how to do something is really only interesting if you plan to take the controls back yourself at some point.
On the other hand, we may soon reach a point where we’re not just trusting our vehicles to do the parallel parking for us — we’ll let them do all the driving. As a result, our streets and highways will become vastly safer and more efficient. However, as passengers in self-driven cars we won’t just be passive observers of what the car is doing. Our drive time will be an opportunity to interact with others in the vehicle, to read, listen to music, blog, watch TV…or perhaps sharpen our skills in some elaborate computer driving game. And yes, while playing that game in a vehicle being driven by a computer, we might from time to time let the computer take over driving the simulation as well, but always with an eye to taking over again somewhere down the road.
It sounds shocking: we turn some activities over to the machines altogether; others we swap off with them, back and forth. Actually, there’s nothing shocking about that. This is exactly the world we live in now. I let a computer take over most of the heavy lifting involved in an archaic process called “balancing my checkbook” years ago. A closely related task, paying bills, is one I swap off with the computer.
How far will this go? It’s hard to say. As computers become more sophisticated, we will see more and more, and increasingly complex, tasks handed off to them either temporarily or permanently. Will we one day reach a point where it seems only natural to hand control over to a trusted digital friend when our careers or personal relationships start to get sticky? Just like a really difficult level in a computer game, right? Give the computer temporary control and then you can step back in later when things have calmed down a bit.
I don’t know: that starts to sound like “too dang lazy” territory even to me. But take it a step further. Given the choice, would some people go on full autopilot with their entire lives — relinquishing all decisions to the machines and reducing their own role to that of a spectator?
I certainly wouldn’t want to do that, but I can see the appeal.
What if a computer program came along that was as good at living your life — as measured by achieving the outcomes that you most desire — as a calculator is at figuring out square roots, or as the examples above are at playing Donkey Kong Country or parallel parking? Maybe you wouldn’t just relinquish control to it, but I bet you would at least want to know what is has to say.
UPDATE: Take the survey. Thanks for the link, Glenn!