Man / Machine I: conceptual remarks.

How does man relate to machine? There is a series of questions here that I find fascinating and not a little difficult. I think the relationship between these two concepts also are determinative for a large set of issues that we are debating today, and so we would do well to examine this language game here.

There are, of course, many possibilities. Let’s look at a few.

First, there is the worn out “man is a lesser machine”-theme. The idea here is that machine is a perfect man, and that we should be careful with building machines that can replace us. Or that we should strive ourselves to become machines in order to survive. In this language game machine is perfection, eternity and efficiency, man is imperfection, ephemeral and inefficient. The gleaming steel and ultra-rational machine is a better version of biological man. It is curious to me that this is the conceptual picture that seems strongest right now. We worry about machines taking over, machines taking our jobs and machines turning us all into paper clips (or at least Nick Bostrom does). Because we see them as our superiors in every regard.

In many versions of this conceptual landscape evolution is also a sloppy and inefficient process, creating meat machines with many flaws and short comings — and machines are the end point. They are evolution mastered, and instead of being products of evolution machines produce it as they see fit. Nature is haphazard and technology is deliberate. Any advantage that biology has over technology is seen as easy to design in, and any notion of man’s uniqueness is quickly quashed by specific examples of the machine’s superiority: chess, jeopardy, go, driving —

The basis of this conceptual landscape is that there are individual things machines do better than man, and the conclusion is that machines must be generally better. A car drives faster than a man can run, a computer calculates faster than a man can count and so: machine is generally superior to man.

That does not, of course, follow with any logical necessity. A dog’s sense of smell is better than man, and a dog’s hearing is better than ours. Are dogs superior to man? Hardly anyone would argue that, yet still that same argumentative pattern seems to lead us astray when we talk about machines.

There is not, as far as I am concerned, wrong or right here – but I think we would do well to entertain a broad set of conceptual schemas when discussing technology and humanity, and so am wary of any specific frame being mistaken for the truth. Different frames afford us different perspectives and we should use them all.

The second, then, is that machine is imperfect man. This perspective does not come without its own dangers. The really interesting thing about Frankenstein’s monster is that there is a very real question of how we interpret the monster: as a machine or man? As superior or inferior? Clearly superior on strength, the monster is mostly thought to be stupid and inferior intellectually to its creator.
In many ways this is our secret hope. This is the conceptual schema that gives us hope in the Terminator movies: surely the machine can be beat, it has to have weaknesses that allow us to win over it with something distinctly human, like hope. The machine cannot be perfect, so it has to have a fatal flaw, an imperfection that will allow us to beat it?

The third is that machine is man and man just a machine. This is the La Mettrie view. The idea that there is a distinction between man and machine is simply wrong. We are machines and the question is just how we can be gradually upgraded and improved. There is, in this perspective, a whiff of the first perspective but with an out: we can become better machines, but we will still also be men. Augmentation and transcendence, uploading and cyborgs all inhabit this intellectual scheme.

But here we also have another, less often discussed, possibility. That indeed we are machines, but that we are what machines become when they become more advanced. Here, the old dictum from Arthur C Clarke comes back and we paraphrase: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from biology. Biology and technology meld, nature and technology were never distinct or different – technology is just slow and less complex nature. As it becomes more complex, technology becomes alive – but not superior.

Fourth, and rarely explored, we could argue simply that machine and man are as different as man and any tool. There is no convergence, no relationship. A hammer is not a stronger hand. A computer is not a stronger mind. They are different and mixing them up is simply ridiculous. Man is of one category, machine of another and they are incommensurable.

Again: it is not a question of choosing one, but recognizing that they all matter in understanding questions of technology and humanity, I think. More to come.

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