My Computer is a Dick: Do Machines Behave?

A documentary came out a few years ago with some of the first ever footage of group of Hippopotamus at night. This creature’s nocturnal behaviour had been something of a mystery for people and this film was eye opening with its discovery of new behaviours. It featured a dead Hippo by the side of a body of water, the other hippos gathered around in an arc and appeared to lower their heads as though in solemn silent tribute. They remained like this for a short time as though giving last prayer, then they commenced to eat the dead family member.

This was described as cannibalism, abhorrent to humans, baffled that such a social creature could do this. But maybe for the hippo this is normal and always has been. The disgust and moral wrong of cannibalism is a purely human construct and imposing this standard on other creatures that don’t think like us shows both a lack of empathy and extreme empathy. Empathy for the dead hippo as most of us don’t want to be eaten, our culture tells us that’s bad. And lack of empathy by assuming that hippos think like us even though they have something of a society of their own. The concept of Theory of Mind is how people understand that other people think differently, have different beliefs, feelings and understanding. Theory of mind takes empathy to work at its best, and in this case we should apply it to understand that Hippo’s don’t think like us.

We do similar things for machines, we give ships women’s names and refer to them as her, Guitarists name their instruments, and we assume a computer crashing is some sort of personality flaw.

Machines don’t have personalities. We can name them, paint faces on them and even talk to them. Some may remember the film The Love Bug (1968) where a Volkswagon beetle named Herbie can talk and has a personality, or many cartoons and other films where inanimate objects are alive, but that’s the fantasy world for kids, surely it doesn’t mean anything? But it does, the entertainment we have as children does affect how we view the world later. It’s also quite normal for children to give personalities to toys and humanise them. Children often play by bringing to life their toys, whether it’s a doll in humanoid form or a car.

Adult entertainment continues this idea, most famously in Science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a malevolent computer called Hal is essentially the star even though we don’t meet Hal until the end sequence. The Star Wars films with “droids” who are characters with personalities for no real reason other than for the audience to see them as characters, and of course Bladerunner where the story is very much about the difference between people and artificial people. There are many more examples, so many it looks like we’re obsessed with the idea of intelligent machines.

In recent years, the idea of AI (Artificial Intelligence) has gone from Sci-fi to reality where many jobs are being replaced by machines. The world’s greatest Go[1] player was defeated by a computer, our phones now talk to us.

Whether we should fear AI or not is yet to be seen, Science Fiction would suggest we should fear it, and the creators have often been right about technologies impact on humankind in the future.

What any of the stories suggest is that with AI, we don’t only get machines that can think, we get machines that can behave. Behave in that they may develop emotions and act on them, they may develop needs and ideas and act on them.

Science Fiction aside the reality is that machines not only play a much bigger part in our lives than ever but also control our lives more.

Should we fight this or should we accept the role of technology in modern life? You don’t have a choice, however old you are the next generation uses technology more than you do, and they’re smarter. The dangers are different but no more or worse than before. People still bully and harass they just have different means to do it.

The main issue is, people are still in control. Facebook isn’t to blame for people being horrible, that’s people who do that. Snapchat isn’t responsible for people sending dick pics, that’s people. Maybe they can do more to prevent and respond but it’s not the formats fault that people do awful things.

The invention of computers and the internet has allowed offenders to find new and easier ways to commit offences, but it isn’t because of the internet that people make and view child porn.

People behave, machines don’t. Machines follow instructions. When a machine doesn’t do what we want, we very quickly blame it, and blame is another human response.

“It’s my computers fault, it won’t load the program!”

This anthropomorphising of objects somehow fills a human need to make things seem like us, to have a personality and a personality has flaws. Most of us at some point have lost a beloved object which we have imbued some kind of personality on, a blanket, a record, or a teddy bear. This is quite normal for people to do.

Adults often have mixed feelings about what children believe. We are happy to a point for them to think that Santa exists, or the tooth fairy. Children will have imaginary friends and this is OK, but when does it become not OK to believe in something unreal, like a toy having a personality with a back story and feelings?

Behaviour must have meaning and machines cannot convey meaning in what they do. When AI gets to the point that it can impose meaning on its actions then this may change and that is what is scary, not that machines can do our practical jobs, but when they can do all of our intellectual and emotional tasks.

Who hasn’t experienced frustration at a piece of technology not fulfilling its expected function? Whether it be car, computer or tin opener? It is important to remember these things are malevolent, they just have a malfunction. However, if it helps to deal with it by shouting at it or insulting it then carry on…


[1] Go is an ancient Chinese game which has remained as the most simple and complex board game, masters of the game are considered genius.


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