[Humanist] 23.744 slaves or companions

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Apr 3 07:18:39 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 744.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    amsler at cs.utexas.edu                                      (34)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.742 slaves in chains or our companions?

  [2]   From:    "Zafrin, Vika" <vzafrin at bu.edu>                           (39)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.742 slaves in chains or our companions?

        Date: Fri, 02 Apr 2010 08:08:42 -0500
        From: amsler at cs.utexas.edu
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.742 slaves in chains or our companions?
        In-Reply-To: <20100402055319.7D5184CD20 at woodward.joyent.us>

The closest I've come to relating to a computer as anything more than  
a machine is in using TIVO, the programmable digital recorder. The  
image that I frequently evoke is one of a television butler, a  
household servant. While such an image 'could' be of a 'slave' it  
would in more modern times be that of a person hired to perform a  
specific task. The main conflict is that TIVO is still not much more  
intelligent than a dog. It's scheduling algorithm needs constant  
monitoring because it fails to make the same decisions about how to  
resolve conflicts in recording two shows at once that I would make.  
Fails to recognize solutions that involve skipping shows that will be  
rebroadcast multiple times to record shows of lesser priority that  
will only be broadcast once.

However, it sets up the paradigm for the future. Think of the services  
that the wealthy hire people to perform for them today and imagine  
computers being brought into use to provide those same services for  
the general public in the future.

It's neither symbiosis nor slavery.

The problem with 'slavery' is that (among many) that it assumed the  
'slave' is intelligent enough to make human-level decisions. The  
problem with 'symbiosis' is that it assumes the symbiote is  
trustworthy at the level of your own body or mind. Neither of these is  
likely to be possible for some time. What we'll get it tentative  
trials of an entity hired to carry out a task with a presumption of  
monitoring their actions rather closely until it becomes clear what  
the entity is capable of doing reliably.

I guess the question of whether dogs trained to perform tasks, fetch  
the paper, alert the owner to someone or something approaching, etc.  
are in 'slavery' of some sort? Do we put lesser life forms into  
'slavery' when we keep them as pets? I suppose it could be considered  
that way. We hold the power of life and death over them. They are  
considered property. They are returned to us if they run away. The  
only modern modification to the slavery pact is that government  
organizations require certain standards of conduct from the owners and  
regulate the types of animals we can keep as pets.

        Date: Fri, 2 Apr 2010 12:02:12 -0400
        From: "Zafrin, Vika" <vzafrin at bu.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.742 slaves in chains or our companions?
        In-Reply-To: <20100402055319.7D5184CD20 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

> So, it seems, we have
> two quite opposed and living arguments about where 
our work could go. Neither
> are trivial or easily dismissed. It seems to 
me that for interests like ours
> a smart companion is preferable by far 
than an ever so obedient slave.

> do you think?

I agree, though suspect that people who think at/about a more
ones-and-zeroes level than I would disagree.

My reasons are twofold.  One has to do with the nature of my work.  In large
part, it involves slowly coaxing variously Luddite faculty members to think
about computers, computing, networks, social media and various online tools
and resources as a necessary part of their humanities research and pedagogy.
They overcome a lot of fear in order to get anywhere useful, and most of
that fear is the fear of the black box that they don't understand.  A slave
is wholly dependent on you, the master; that's scary when you don't know
what you're doing.  Assigning a computer agency (not sentience!) takes some
of the load of responsibility off the human interactor.

My second reason to view computers as smart companions is science fiction,
much of which is a subset of contemporary philosophy.  From Asimov to
Battlestar Galactica, we've been exploring what would happen if computers
achieved sentience, if an artificial intelligence crossed some sort of
threshold and gained a sense of self.  Inevitably, the answer is conflict
with the humans; inevitably, that conflict arises from humans' obstinate
arrogance in thinking themselves the pinnacle of intelligence.

Whether this AI-selfhood thing ever happens is irrelevant.  Thinking of
computers as smart companions reminds me of humility, nudges me to check my
assumptions, leaves me open to more possibilities (and greater empathy with
other human beings) than the master-slave mentality would.

Am I telling myself fairy tales?  Sure.  Don't we all, all the time?


Vika Zafrin
Digital Collections and Computing Support Librarian
Boston University School of Theology

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