Machines or us?

Some people claim that there needs to be a computer or some machine to do this or that for them, and over the years, it seems this agenda has been able to be carried out since many things they used to do themselves are now done by some machines, such as reading (I guess it’s not for pleasure), writing, washing, and possibly thinking. So, where to draw the line between building a machine to do some task, which we can do, and deciding not to build such a machine although we know how? Also, do we lose anything at all in trying to mechanize everything?

I have the impression that early machines, which were mostly physical objects, were built out of convenience. Consider the Egyptians who might not possibly move those heavy stones to build their pyramids if it were not for the machines they build for such work or empires that won many battles because they have machines that their opponents didn’t have. Not only were they useful, it seems machines were considered as products of humans’ genius; thus, it was then desirable to design machines that could do more, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Later, the idea of a mechanical system, which had been conceived as not necessarily a physical object and designed to do things that were not necessarily tangible, things such as thinking, might have originated with Leibniz with his Calculus Ratiocinator. Nowadays, the tendency to build machines (by that I mean not only huge mechanical structures such as cranes and cars but also computers and other technological gadgets) seems to be so prevalent that one is tempted to consider it as always have been this way. But, could it be an historical accident that someone or some people thought about building some mechanical object in the first place? Or were they “destined” to be able to design an external structure that could possibly outdo them?

An argument I have heard for the creation of machines to do many things we used to do ourselves is that we will have more time to spend on more complex activities since machines actually can only  accomplish “basic” tasks. For example, instead of spending or “wasting” time on computing derivatives and integrals, which used to be done by humans, we can design a machine, say a calculator, to calculate that for us so that we can spend more time on, say, understanding why some functions are differentiable or integrable, which a machine apparently cannot understand. Or the time it would take a student to wash his clothes could be spent on, say, writing an intelligible paper, which supposedly is out of reach of a machine. However, if definite criteria are not established to determine which activities to relegate to a machine or even which activities to seek to design a machine for, wouldn’t it then be possible that this mechanization will be sought for almost everything we used to do? Could it be that even the thinking that we use to design such machines will be done by a machine? We now risk becoming circular in the sense that one might ask which comes first: our thinking or the machine thinking. This apparent circularity might be seen by some as a comfort in that it shows that continual mechanization is impossible. But, how could we know such limit exists so that we can comfortably go on with building machines for many human activities, knowing in the back of our mind that this can’t go on forever?

Furthermore, if the thinking we do, which some people claim to differentiate us from other animals or to make us “superior” to them,  can be done by a machine, with a set of predictable rules, do we still need to see ourselves as any special? Or would we, out of despair, have to try to find another feature and convince ourselves that it cannot be reducible to a machine? Or maybe to be able to reduce anything we can do to a machine indeed is a sign of our humanity, something other animals presumably cannot do. In such a case, maybe it is not such a bad thing to have a machine to mirror us; it could be useful in that we can use them as a good guide to say something about us: if our machines are becoming more powerful, we can say we’re becoming smarter, or we might try to figure out what’s wrong with us if they are becoming more erratic.

In this state of affair, what do you think?

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