When the Machines Take Over

By | November 21, 2010
This Donkey Kong level demonstrates extensive ...

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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!


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  • dcwhatthe

    This is a crucial activity – tinkering with the dynamic boundaries between our brains and digital resources. And it involves our freedom of choice at every step of the way.

    As we further integrate digital capabilities in our lives and eventually inside our bodies, we will continue to refine our respective roles.

    And, as with most of life, the boundaries will always be fuzzy. On any given day or moment, we might want to be mostly in control, and at another moment we will hand over the reins to the machine, for fun or rest or just random choice. Along the way, both we and the machines will expand our capabilities.

    Back and forth, over the years, and the point is not whether a human entity or a machine entity takes exclusive control of anything. The point is adjusting to a world where either entity can run the show, and then finally to a world where we are inseparable from our machines.

  • stephentg

    Though it will put me out of business, I look forward to the day that auto-driving vehicles are readily available. We have come to accept as a society a startlingly high level of death and destruction as a result of vehicle crashes.

    If this level of mayhem where due to war, we’d see protests in every city in the country.

    And I’d be marching with them.

    But you final question is a great one. How much of our lives do we turn over to machines? Answer: the closer we are to our technology – the more we accept it as part of ourselves – the more we will be willing to turn over to it.

  • https://me.yahoo.com/a/fnRgwMAvgJGnvDJ9AxxIcuPcPkqAqQ–#52509

    This isn’t exactly a game playing itself for you, it is two people playing a game, then the game replay being commented on after the fact. Then the replay (with comments) is uploaded to YT for people to watch. There are thousands of these commented replays of games on YT with a huge following.

    The people watching aren’t playing the game and a computer isn’t playing the game, but it is a step in the direction of people watching a computer game without actually playing it.

    When good AI is developed that watching two AI strategies battle each other is entertaining, expect to see people watching replays (or live ‘casts) of computers playing war games against each other.


  • bonner.joseph

    Regarding your comment on GPS, the recent meeting of the Society for Neuroscience included a report by researchers at McGill University on how relying on GPS may affect the hippocampus: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40138522/ns/health-mental_health

  • jfielek

    Laziness is the mother of invention — Me :)

    Engineers like me work hours and hours so we don’t have to do the repetitive and boring tasks over and over again, and so you don’t have to, either.

    As far as lost knowledge, understanding the core concepts doesn’t mean you have to keep doing them in perpetuity. I understand binary math, digital electronics, and a bundle of other underlying technologies, but I’d rather spend my time making a cool device while the computer spends its time resolving the underlying trash.

    It works well. I come up with the great ideas on how the big pieces work, and the computer helps me keep the underlying portion in order, without any need for me to go through and change all the little pieces underneath.

    If there is a problem, the computer lets me know so I can explore alternatives that fit within the underlying structure. The computer lets me explore more possibilities and build better products faster thanks to it freeing me from the grunt work.

    In automobiles and motorcycles, the electronics serve to help put a curb at the edge of the envelop, so that should conditions alter that edge I can still stay within the envelop.

    I’m not a pure technophile; I love old bikes for the feel and the need to exercise skills to really make use of the vehicle’s capabilities. But on a long, cross country trip, or when scratching in the mountains, a little bit of extra margin is a good thing.

    Any erosion of brainpower from computer assistance is purely a result of the end user neglecting their brain.

  • sarah.natividad

    I think the difference between “better living through technology” and “too dang lazy” is this: if the technology you are using to pay your bills doesn’t work, you still pay your bills. If you were at the point where if your computer crashes you just throw up your hands and leave your bills unpaid until you can buy another computer, you’d fall into the “too dang lazy” category.

    In my never-humble opinion as a math educator, calculators used too soon are one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Calculators used to do calculations *that a student can already do by hand*, in the context of a problem that would otherwise be bogged down by all the hand calculations, are appropriate. They’re almost never used that way though. I want a dollar for every remedial college algebra student I’ve had in my office literally shaking because they never learned how to add fractions by hand and now it’s coming back to bite them in the butt. Teaching kids how to use calculators is good. Teaching them to be calculator jockeys in lieu of actual math is “too dang lazy”.

    It’s the part where we foist off personal responsibility onto the machines that pushes us over the line from “useful tool” into “too dang lazy.”