A brief reflection on the evolution of machines and on the evolution of our attitudes toward human-machine symbiosis.
The archetypal dumb machine, with its mechanistic instruction set and poor human factors, used to be humorous, as in this old Charlie Chaplin clip from “Modern Times:”
There was something absurd, and thus funny, about the juxtaposition of the organic process of food or eating with the technological processes of machinery. We could laugh at the logical, assembly-line programming and the cold insensitivity of both function and malfunction. Such depictions as this clip were consistent with an early twentieth-century theme of critiquing technology and industrialism as inadequate, even antithetical, to human interests. The symbiosis of humans and machines was depicted as a forced and tense one at best, ineffective or offensive at worst.
Fast forward 80 years, and we see the emerging reality of smart machines, such as this robot butler from Japan:
Not the same kind of clip, I realize, but a common feature: the juxtaposition of food and technology. But it’s not absurd like the Chaplin bit, or at least not absurd in the same way.
My reaction is that, in the case of the robot butler, if taken as representative of machine evolution, the synthetic interfaces with the organic in a much more human-like way. The humor here, if you find any, may be in the painfully slow, clumsy mimesis of human motion. I smile, yet I can’t help but accept the robotic butler. The machine is okay there, in the kitchen handling food; there’s nothing dehumanizing about it. Its machine-ness doesn’t threaten me in the same way the mechanization of life may have threatened Chaplin’s original audience. There’s simply more comfort and naturalness in the symbiosis of humans and machines here.
Finally, it’s worthwhile to reflect on where we might be now on a continuum of specifically “android” evolution. The technology is getting better, though it’s not quite there. Symbiotically, our openness to human-like machines is likely evolving as well, and this is critical in order for the technology to continue to improve. Put another way, our collective human willingness to be symbiotes with androids will define the degree and pace at which the machines evolve.
When we’re ready, I suspect, they’ll be ready too.