What if we become as stupid as machines?

Ray Kurzweil, the man who promises "Singularity" between man and machine, speaks of it as being a wonderful thing. But is it? Even remotely?

Shallow HAL? TheCussingChannel/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I'm told that soon a machine will see to my every need.

Which is a relief, as my needs are many, my time is short, and my tastes are variable and eclectic.

Or will that be the other way around? Will we have to see to machines' every need?

It's hard to tell at the moment. Machines are pestering me to allow them to push things on me -- be it "better" ads or pushy push notifications. They want my address book, all my e-mails, and please, please, can they have my photo album to show all their other machine friends.

The implication is that machines are just here to help me become a better me and the machine become a better machine. Until the machine is a better me.

Then along trots famed vitamin-guzzler and Google near-futurist Ray Kurzweil telling the Guardian that in a mere 15 years, machines will be smarter than people.

Yes, they'll get all the places in our colleges and we'll just have to get jobs as machine cleaners and screw-polishers.

This is a serious situation. As MailChimp's chief data scientist John Foreman writes in GigaOm: "In the hands of machine learning models, we become nothing more than a ball of probabilistic mechanisms to be manipulated with carefully designed inputs that lead to anticipated outputs."

Yes, we become, as Foreman puts it, "nothing but products of previous measured actions."

You liked Captain Crunch before, you'd better still like it now, or what kind of human are you? Not a predictable one and that's no good for the machines at all.

For the machine, your liking for Captain Crunch defines you in some way. Even though the root of this liking might really be that you're a stunningly lazy human who doesn't want to bother thinking about other cereals.

Still, as Russia Today reports, the aim of the machinists is to "know you better than your intimate partner."

It's the word "better" that is always enlightening. Machine proponents always believe that they are creating something "better." With a sleight of word a machine couldn't grasp, they insist that their better is better than what you currently regard as your most intimate experience.

Because they know better.

The past is, in these machines' case, not merely the prologue, but the storyline. Foreman calls the ultimate effect "data-laundered discrimination."

In the end, we might be not humans but prophesies that have to be fulfilled by the machines. It's less "I think, therefore I am" and more "I was, therefore I must be the linear same."

In essence, then, we come down the level of machines, rather than machines rising to become somehow smarter than us.

And, let's face it, our past with machines hasn't exactly been perfect.

There's this neat, charming belief that machine power will always rise above that of the human.

But how many times in the past and present have you had to reboot a machine, slap it, poke it, knock it, or shake it? How many times did it not start, not show you what you wanted to see, take an age before it delivered what it promised, or simply lie there half-witted and give you a blank face?

How many times did it (and does it) offer the wrong answer, the wrong question, or an invasion of your attention that is entirely unwelcome?

How many times do you still have to change machines altogether because they're dead to you, dripping with aging faces or reduced paces? How many times do they simply embarrass you in public with their pathetic lifespan and their sudden inability to function at the push of a finger?

You'll tell me that this has already been solved because everything will be very fine algorithms in the cloud. I'll tell you that algorithms haven't exactly been clever in telling me that I need to buy a book I already ordered six months ago. They also have little clue what shoes I like. (Oh, right. That's my fault.)

Is this what we really aspire to? Are we really so confident that smug, ugly machines will know with 99.9 percent certainty what we want today, tomorrow or even next Tuesday?

You see, they're so stupid currently that they assume we have little or no intuition about our relationship with Captain Crunch.

All of this supposed machine superiority fundamentally needs our passive acquiescence.

As long as we increase our dependence on the machines, their power will increase. And there's every chance that we will allow that -- that we, soft-headed as we often are, will choose to become as limited as our machine pretenders.

After all, the swiftest way to subjugate someone is to make them believe that they are nothing without you.

Until that's what we really become: nothing at all.

 

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