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Thinking Like Software

The chess master Garry Kasparov wrote a review for the New York Review of Books (note 1) saying that everybody can now have a chess program that will crush most grandmasters. But those programs work on the brute force of calculation, rather than style, patterns, theory or creativity.

“Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.” He points out that new and innovative ideas in chess software are not needed, since brute-force programs are efficient enough for the goal of winning.

While chess software has become less creative with the strong computing power now available, chess players has adopted this same attitude of merely looking for “what works.” There is undoubtedly a mutual feedback between the digital representations of reality and the way we approach those aspects of reality. Musician friends have told me that since the advent of software for composing music, their creative attitude has changed along with the mechanisms of musical software production.

Graphics, video production, architecture, music and countless creative activities are now being aided by software. And algorithms and the programming attitude extend from computers to real life. Losing weight, talking to an audience, finding the right partner, keeping her/him, having great sex, improving our self-esteem has became a “how-to” problem. With the right instructions and following the right procedures we believe we can master anything in life.

Yet computers still can’t do many things which are easy for humans – so we must adapt human work to the machine’s needs. Amazon Mechanical Turk service thus describes precisely how it supports creation of the human servomechanism:

Developers can leverage this service to build human intelligence directly into their applications. While computing technology continues to improve, there are still many things that human beings can do much more effectively than computers, such as identifying objects in a photo or video, performing data de-duplication, transcribing audio recordings or researching data details (http://aws.amazon.com/mturk/).

Human history is full of connections between humans and technological instruments. And the use of tools to extend our possibilities has been a big step in human development. But what we are facing now is something different. With Mechanical Turk, all human activities are first converted into digital ones, even those requiring imagination and intuition which lie beyond the ability of computers. Then human brain resources are used to decode actions that the machine is incapable of performing well. It is a kind of modern assembly line where, in place of physical and manual repetition, we find the repetition of a banal mental activity ‑ such as recognizing an image and classifying it, or transcribing a spoken text.

As more and more human activities are being translated into digital form, we need to supply the computer with the broader mind power of the human. We participate in order for the tool itself to expand its possibilities, no longer just to expand human capacities. It can be said that in the end it’s humans who take advantage of the human-computer interaction, and it is still humans who decide what to process and elaborate. This is true in a way, but in the movement to digitize even non-computable aspects that require massive human intervention, humans are becoming servomechanisms of technology as they feed the machine.

Among the many and enormous advantages of efficient automatic machinery is this: it is completely fool-proof. But every gain has to be paid for. The automatic machine is fool-proof; but just because it is fool-proof it is also grace-proof. The man who tends such a machine is impervious to every form of esthetic inspiration, whether of human or of genuinely spiritual origin (Huxley, Aldous, The Perennial Philosophy, New York: Harper & Row, 1945. p. 171).

(1) Kasparov, Garry, “The Chess Master and the Computer,” New York Review of Books, Feb 2010. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/feb/11/the-chess-master-and-the-computer/>

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