The Changing Roles of Machines and Humans: A Philosophical Consideration

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Tuesday, September 13th, 2016
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Until now, the idea has been that humans are active and machines are passive. This has helped to maintain the hierarchical relationship between humans and machines.

However, these days, machines have begun to replace the work previously done by humans, and a type of role reversal between humans and machines is taking place: the long-held belief that humans are active and machines are passive is being challenged and machines are inching closer to a position of control. When this happens, humans will have an identity crisis. They will ask questions such as “What is it to be human?” or “Who am I?” For this reason, it is important to reflect on the changing roles of machines and humans.

Currently, the most obvious role reversal is taking place in the realm of what is known as driverless cars; however, there is a serious lack of reflection on what is occurring in this field, as shown by the plethora of terms that have been coined by the combined fields of automobiles and ICT, much of which are used interchangeably by the media and popular culture. These terms are often used without fully defined meanings, which leads to confusion. For example, driverless cars, autonomous cars and self-driving cars are all essentially “cars that can recognize their surroundings and reach a specific destination without a driver’s interference,” as they are capable of not only avoiding obstacles but also maintaining the appropriate distance from the other cars on the road. What is currently called the smart car will eventually develop into a driverless car, so it could be considered that the smart car includes the concepts of a driverless car.

The automobile industry is aiming to commercialize driverless cars by 2025, the presumed date that driverless cars will be able to operate at least at the level of a human. According to 2008 car accident data, serious accidents occur approximately every 10⁶ miles for human-driven cars, and David Staven from Stanford’s driverless car lab maintains that driverless cars will be commercialized when the technology reaches the accident rate of this level. Data for driverless car accidents don’t yet exist, but when the driver's intervention becomes essential we can say an accident has occurred. Based on this, currently, driverless car accidents occur about every 10³ miles.

The technology for driverless cars is focused on maximizing the car’s role (the car’s control level) and minimizing the driver’s role (the driver’s intervention level). At the current rate of technological progress, a study in IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) predicted that driverless cars will occupy about 75% of the car market in 2040. In fact, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, even claimed that it would someday be illegal for humans to drive. We can no longer take for granted that humans will drive cars.

Machines are slowly, but surely, replacing human drivers. In other areas as well – in almost all of the areas of work that currently require manpower – machines will replace humans. Technology for driverless cars will continue to develop and eventually surpass humans’ abilities. A perfectly calculated, safer world will be made possible. However, in this future, “perfect” world, will humans be happier simply because a higher level of safety and convenience is ensured? As the world becomes more mechanized, we need a new set of definitions for humans. The dualistic confrontation between humans and non-humans or humans and machines has become obsolete. In this postmodern society, a new definition of human is needed, as is exploring the ideal relationship between humans and machines.

In this era of ever quickening technological progress, we should take a moment and reflect perhaps on Lao-tzu’s and Chuang-tzu's philosophies. They can be viewed as supplements of post-humanism. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu regarded nature as the best order, Kosmos as opposed to other philosophers and scholars. In that sense, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu are speaking of counter-culture. In other words, they are critical of all things artificial.

It is clear that the world is being more and more mechanized. But our future depends on how well humans prepare to avoid subordination to machines. Surely the diversity of human nature will disappear if man and machine thoughtlessly combine. It is right for humans and machines to be mixed, but they must not be equated. I would quote Gilbert Simon and define the relationship between humans and machines as the relationship between conductor and orchestra, not as master and slave.

Woogene Kim (Jungkyung High School)