Food For Machines?

a long read

“Humans struggle to learn, machines struggle to appreciate.”

The Matrix is a classic film that explores the idea of our entire reality being a fabrication. It stands built on the premise that everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch is simply a result of machine-made electrical pulses. These signals are fed through wires plugged into the nervous system and travel to the brain as we mentally interact with the digital world. The movie also innocently plays with ideas such as pre-destination, human nature and even the meaning of life. With enticing writing and cinematography throughout the film, the viewer is often left unaware of these more profound encoded themes and messages. Even my own first time watching the Matrix was a breathtaking ride as I was swept by the narrative. It was only after the third time did I really begin thinking about what life in the Matrix would be like.

The Rise of Computers

One train of thought I took is what I believe to be the central theme throughout the movie, the relationship between humans and machines. Beyond the fight scenes, character dialogues and romance that transcended worlds, there is one image the Matrix makes clear; humans are livestock prisoned and bred by machines. The viewer gets a proper understanding of this in the scene where Neo (the main character) first unplugs from the Matrix and wakes up to the real world. Looking around, he finds himself surrounded by towers dotted with hundreds of thousands of pods just like the one he woke up in, each with a living, growing human also plugged into the Matrix being siphoned of the energy they produce.

Branded as science-fiction, it is tempting to label the Matrix as complete make believe and fantasy, but like any artwork, this movie reflects a part of the reality and culture of the entity that created it. The idea that machines need something from humans to survive and evolve has roots into our everyday lives. Despite being theatrically released in 1999 over 20 years ago, the Matrix continues gaining relevance with each passing day. I don’t know if this is a testament of genius foresight on the writer’s part or simply proof of predictable human behavior.

Machines and computers have become such a big part of our everyday lives, literally everything we do from commuting to communicating is reliant on this technology. This boom has also brought about tech giants with immense influence and money such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. These companies and many others have risen to success largely in part to the smart computers they built to aid them best deliver the services they offer. A relatable example for many people and businesses are 1-day delivery services offered by companies like Amazon, or worldwide strategic advertising as provided by platforms like Facebook and Google. So the question becomes, how did they build these computers to be so effective?

Artificial Intelligence

The vague and mystical label used on any computer that is able to “think”, to effectively problem solve and come up with solutions is artificial intelligence or AI. The process of sifting through mounds of data and making sense of it all. This is where the Matrix got it right, there is a farmed and farmer relationship between humans and machines because the ability to extract value from raw data is uniquely human and the machines need that.

In the same way the Matrix machines needed human bodies as a energy source, modern machines rely on our ability to make sense of information to have any hope of one day mimicking us. In reality however, it’s more like humans are force feeding machines information to make them more powerful for their own ends and not machines drawing it out of us. We constantly give information to computers through prompts on our devices asking to track our habits, know our locations or even send app data back to the developer. This mass scraping of data is then used in the complex evolution of AI.

One interesting example we have all encountered are captchas. Every so often we end up somewhere on the internet, normally when we are trying to sign into an account, asking us to verify that we are in fact human for security reasons. This is done by presenting us a test that a machine will fail and a human should pass. Quickly becoming a big success, the system helped stop many scams and hacks. After a while Google decided to capitalize on this little exercise such that every time someone completed a google captcha, Google’s watching machines would learn from the answers you give. Now the quick thinkers can already see the incoming problem, what happens when the machines learn enough to outsmart these “robot test”? Is there another test we can use to tell robots and humans apart? I’ll leave that to you to ponder on. So now we see that captive by our need to navigate the internet, we are effectively being farmed of our intelligence.

A Secret Ingredient

Despite the dystopian picture that’s being painted, I see this in a more optimistic light. I see evidence of something that makes human beings special. I truly believe that a computer can never become human, it can never have a mind like ours, the best it can do is imitate. A common counter argument is that to be absolutely human is not the goal, a computer just needs to be human “enough” to do the job. While arguably true, this complicates things even more as now we have the additional task of defining the margin of difference between a human and trained machine. In fact if you look closely, this question is where all our sci-fi, robot, AI themed books and movies draw inspiration from, exploring that margin between close enough and fully human.

This fascination of the margin also leads me to believe that deep down we are unsatisfied with the rational world that has been painted for us. If everything could truly be broken down into forces, atoms and microorganisms we can understand, then the jump from machine to human would just be a matter of putting things in the right place and flipping the switch. Evidently this is not the case. Human beings are more than flesh and bones, we are connected to more than what our tendons and ligaments touch, and our existence spans over more than we can rationalize. We contain a secret ingredient which completes us, and that to me is very exciting!

For those interested in this topic, here is an excellent video published by Vox on what is going on behind the scenes when you complete a Captcha.

What role do you see computers having in our future? and what will the relationship between humans and machines look like? Let me know your thoughts!

~ Edited by: Wam

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