Nugget: Man-Computer Symbiosis

The information-processing equipment, for its part, will convert hypotheses into testable models and then test the models against data (which the human operator may designate roughly and identify as relevant when the computer presents them for his approval). The equipment will answer questions. It will simulate the mechanisms and models, carry out the procedures, and display the results to the operator. It will transform data, plot graphs (“cutting the cake” in whatever way the human operator specifies, or in several alternative ways if the human operator is not sure what he wants). The equipment will interpolate, extrapolate, and transform. It will convert static equations or logical statements into dynamic models so the human operator can examine their behavior. In general, it will carry out the routinizable, clerical operations that fill the intervals between decisions.

I should begin by saying I hesitate to cry robot apocalypse,  but paragraphs like this make it just too tempting to deny. Plus, like Ben, if I didn’t find something to keep me engaged I was going to lose my mind trawling through that PDF.

Licklider seems very excited about the possibility of replacing humans with machines. I, on the other hand, watch science fiction movies. They have fostered within me a healthy caution of human-machine symbiosis.



Admittedly, Licklider seems to be a practical person, while I am a much more fantastical one. Licklider is speculating on what is necessary to facilitate human/machine symbiosis. I am more concerned with the potential consequences of success.

Like Licklider says, the line between symbiosis and artificial intelligence is slim. Not being a computer scientist, I am admittedly less qualified to speak to the subject than he. But I struggle to think of many examples of human/machine symbiosis in fiction that doesn’t end badly.


Admittedly, there are a few. Wuddy and Gerrell bought brought up JARVIS from Iron Man. But JARVIS is still an example of why we should avoid relying on machines to think for us. Even a system that isn’t actively evil can still cause plenty of havoc. Was Iron Man not in deep, deep trouble in Iron Man 3 when his suit powered down and he could not interact with JARVIS? He was indeed.

Licklider speaks passingly of the rapid advancements in technology we have made. I don’t know much, but I do know that scientific advances tend to accelerate. Every year, we do and discover more than we did the year before. Who’s to say we will be able to stop ourselves from accidentally moving too quickly? We’re already approaching Robocop levels. How will we know when enough is enough? As Justin mentioned, the processing power of the human brain is immense. Can we make a machine that intelligent? If we can, not even experts are sure how that will turn out. Given what Symone mentioned about how machines and humans must eliminate all tension between each other in order to function, I’m not optimistic.

I, for one, am not prepared to be assimilated.


One thought on “Nugget: Man-Computer Symbiosis”

  1. Like you:
    “I struggle to think of a single example of human/machine symbiosis in fiction that doesn’t end badly.”
    But this is fiction, after all. And I can’t help questioning WHY it ALWAYS has to end badly.
    I also don’t think Licklider could even begin to imagine the RoboCop we know. He was just concerned about how to make our work more efficient — how to hand over some tasks to the machine to free up our brains to do the other, more essential work of projects.

    I can tell you stories of the hours I spent in the Georgetown library tracking down books, lugging them home, taking notes on them, xeroxing whole chapters, finding scholarly articles on microfilm, paying to print them, finding bound editions of scholarly journals, smashing them flat on the xerox machine to copy articles — all absolutely necessary to complete my graduate thesis. But sooo much TIME lost to these tasks. The computer has changed that for all of us — we have a symbiotic relationship to it — and it does the busy work of tracking down articles, emailing them to us, holding them in electronic folders or on dropbox, sharing them with other researchers on Diigo. OMG the difference the computer would’ve made to my graduate work!

    So I think Licklider was imagining what I’ve experienced in my lifetime, and not the fiction we see. But you, and others, are saying that these leaps in man-computer symbiosis will continue, and you ask — fear — what are the eventual consequences?

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