Are We Already Working For The Computers?

After spending the last seven hours in front of my computer, a phrase came to mind that my brother Daniel recently said to me in response to reading The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.  Daniel said:

“What if we we are already working for the computers?”

While The Matrix and Horton Hears a Who! come immediately to mind, his comment was subtler than that.  What if we turn the entire paradigm on its side?  In our biological realm we “evolve”; in our computing realm we “innovate.”  What if the computers are actually evolving and have figured out that the best way for them to evolve more quickly is to convince us to “innovate” for them.

I had to stop and scrunch my eyes together after typing that paragraph.  The first draft I wrote was way weirder and more out there – basically a rant about how computers were having a conversation in a parallel universe that we don’t actually understand and, as part of this, had figured out how to manipulate human beings. 

At Ted yesterday, my long time friend John Underkoffler, the co-founder of Oblong stated “Technology is capable of expressing generosity. And we need to demand that.


While he meant something totally different, I think this is consistent with the parallel universe I’m pondering.  As humans (at least most Americans), we regularly envision ourselves at the top of the pyramid of existence, unless you are not an atheist, in which case god factors in somewhere on your hierarchy.  But – let’s leave god (or the lack of god) out and think about “humans as a species” vs. “computers as a species”.  I started with constructs like collective consciousness and communication hierarchy and was able to quickly come up with a straightforward analogy for each one between the human species and the computer species.

And yet, I still type.  All in the name of sharing and contributing my thoughts via this very interesting mechanism.  I’m going to run for three hours this afternoon.  I’ll have my Garmin 305 on my wrist (with its GPS) and my iPhone in my pack (listening to the end of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I’ll be contributing a lot of data to both devices, which will then record them and upload them to “the computer”.  The amount of data I’m generating is enormous; I’m not quite sure what the computers are using all of this data for, but what if it was actually something specific?

Before you discard these thoughts as the ravings of a lunatic, just think about them for a minute.  This is a common construct in so much contemporary science fiction.  Maybe the “collective compute infrastructure” of the world has already passed us by and now have us working for them / it.  Wouldn’t that be something to discover 100 years from now.

  • Derald

    Ok, you got me to bite here. I'm thinking about it, pondering on it. What a fascinating theory.

  • tom

    I would think that if we were already working for the computers, then the pace of technical innovation of the computers I use would have would have been greater than that which has been provided to me over the last couple of decades by the borg (pun intended).

  • Have you read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? (I can't imagine that you haven't).

  • Ah, if the computers were really in charge, then we wouldn't be here! :-)!

    You touched on two of my old ideas, both in the future, that we know we can do, and short of 'the singularity' which we don't know how to do:

    (1) Data Flows.

    Currently the data goes from a human into a computer so that later humans can get the data, or results of processing it, out of the computer. Bummer.

    We need mostly to have the computers getting the data from other computers and much less frequently involving humans.

    Or, the GUI, an easy to use interface for humans but tough for computers, is a big bottleneck.

    Uh, you just spent seven hours stuffing in such data and getting back out such data.

    I was up late last night doing that, being clear that the latest TeX YAP will no longer display a BMP file and trying to be clear on what it will display. REALLY big waste of time.

    (2) Hierarchy.

    Borrowing from society, we need people managing computers, managing computers, …, managing computers doing the work.

    Common Lesson. Listen up Microsoft, applications developers: Much of the future has to be to enable your software to talk to other software, not just humans.

    Economic Principle. There is one big push for progress, more economic productivity.

    Let's consider a factor of 10: So, take a couple, both working 80 hours a week, for $10 an hour, with two children. They gross $80 K a year and spend all of it.

    With a factor of 10 increase in productivity, they could have one parent stay home with the kids, the other cut back to 40 hours a week, gross $200 K a year, and spend all of it.

    We can continue with such scenarios for a few more factors of 10.

    So, a factor of 10 does get us some coveted additional economic productivity.

    How to achieve a factor of 10? Simple: Have computers do the work; automate everything in sight, including managing computers and having computers work with other computers.

    Lesson. Information technology is the main means now for increases in economic productivity.

    Tool. How to program computers to do the work? So far we've mostly programmed computers to do work we understood, at least in principle, how to do manually. Getting past that with 'artificial intelligence' hasn't worked (I used to work in that field; it doesn't know how to make significant progress), and 'the singularity' is too far off.

    But there is a way that works great in selected cases: Applied math. Or, how to take this available data to get those valuable results to solve that important problem, e.g., automating something for more economic productivity? In selected cases, the 'how', the crucial, core 'secret sauce', can be some math, possibly original, possibly advanced.

    And, I give thanks to Moore's law, etc.

    Yes, cleaning up why YAP will no longer display a BMP, etc., would also be a little progress!

    Any questions?! :-)!

  • DaveJ

    It gives "workin' for the man" a whole new meaning.

  • Jeremy

    When any new system is built, a model for that system exists in someone's mind. The person with the greatest knowledge of that system and how that system interacts with its environment is in the best position to control it.

    But what happens when the system gets so complex that no single person can comprehend it? Is there a line beyond where the system in effect becomes self-directing?

  • I hope to see some new book (fiction, non-fiction and science-fiction) and film explorations of this before long.

  • I'm in the midst of a research project somewhat along these lines. It's hard to say who is working for whom. Who are mitochondria working for? Who are the cells in your spleen working for? What is a "who" that can be worked for?!

    A few favorite posts and blogs that I've found along the way, in case people have missed them:

    Kevin Kelly, "The Technium"
    We are the Sex Organs of Technology
    What Technology Wants
    "The technium is the sphere of visible technology and intangible organizations that form what we think of as modern culture. It is the current accumulation of all that humans have created. For the last 1,000 years, this techosphere has grown about 1.5% per year. It marks the difference between our lives now, verses 10,000 years ago. Our society is as dependent on this technological system as nature itself. Yet, like all systems it has its own agenda. Like all organisms the technium also wants.

    George Dyson, "Turing's Cathedral"
    "We are not scanning all those books to be read by people," explained one of my hosts after my talk. "We are scanning them to be read by an AI."

    Susan Blackmore, "Evolution's third replicator: Genes, memes, and now what?"
    "Billions of years ago, free-living bacteria are thought to have become incorporated into living cells as energy-providing mitochondria. Both sides benefited from the deal. Perhaps the same is happening to us now. The growing web of machines we let loose needs us to run the power stations, build the factories that make the computers, and repair things when they go wrong – and will do for some time yet. In return we get entertainment, tedious tasks done for us, facts at the click of a mouse and as much communication as we can ask for. It's a deal we are not likely to turn down."

  • Anonymous

    We are not working for the computers: They have no top-level goals of their own. They work narrowly to human goals.

  • How would you define a "top-level goal"? We certainly help them reproduce, and give them large portions of our resources. We spend lots of time making sure they are charged up and updated. On the other side, would you say that the cells of your body are working for you, or that you are working for them? For your DNA? For your culture? The questions are not so simple as they appear, and one must use word like "goals" carefully.

  • Anonymous

    Certainly, the questions require careful definition.

    Can you think of a computer that optimizes towards a goal — that maximizes some utility function, that constrains the world in some specific and narrow direction in a complex way — but that humans have not explicitly chosen that goal?

    Thus, for example, we humans are NOT working towards our DNA's (more accurately, evolution's) goals, which are to optimize immediate copies of the genes. We use birth control and get too fat, neither of which helps evolution's goals.

  • Why does it have to be complex? If I was going to control a population of people and make sure they never found out – I would do it as subtly and as simple as possible.

    The more complex the event the more chances you have for rejection.

  • Zach

    Actually, Daniel Suarez explores this very phenomenon in his new book, Freedom. It's the sequel to his bestseller, Daemon. He raises some very provocative themes. It's a great read, but you need to read Daemon first.

  • What if they are trying to be subtle.  Remember – they might have infinite patience!

  • I haven’t!  Getting it now.

  • Philip Branning

    @wanderingstan, great links. The guy at Google clearly told George Dyson that they were working for the benefit of a future artificial intelligence. They don't necessarily know how the AI will use the information in the books, but having it in a machine-readable form is obviously the first step.

    Since the time when the term "computer" has changed from referring to a person to referring to a machine, we have been pre-digesting data into a format that is palatable for a machine. We program a machine to performs a task faster than we could perform it by hand. This is not new. What is new is the transition from feeding data to a program that performs a well-understood task, at a super-human rate, to fulfilling requests for data from a machine that uses it in ways that are beyond human ability.

    For example, take a look at the ARRA-funded (2.7M) application of the Eureqa system to find a new test for cocaine use. John Wikswo built the robotic platform at Vanderbilt that is being controlled remotely by a Eureqa system at Cornell:

    “In most of science, you try to keep everything constant except for one variable. You turn one knob at a time, and see how the system responds. That’s wonderful for linear systems,” [Wikswo] said. “But most biology is complex and non-linear. Emergent behaviors are very hard to understand unless you turn many knobs at a time, and we can’t figure out which knobs to turn. So we’re going to let Eureqa pick them.”

    Press releases about the system:

    Clearly, these guys are working for the computers! They've gone to great lengths to remove humans from the discovery loop, and plan to build on the results, with a great possibility of not understanding them!

  • I'm a little late to the party; I didn't read this post until Monday morning. It's an intriguing and thought provoking post! Maybe it's a good theme for the next Defrag conference. I'd love a couple of days of deep thought and immersion along the lines of "are we working for the computer?" (All things Suarez, Sobol and Feld.)

  • Classic Robert Heinlein and one of my favorite pieces of science fiction. I'd be interested to hear what you thought if it, if/when you read it.

  • Patrick Leonard

    Very interesting post (and got a lot of people thinking), but when I read "Singularity" a few years ago, my take on Kurzweil's theis was a bit different.

    Kurzweil is predicting that we will merge with our technology. This is a next phase of evolution, on par with the evolution from apes to humans. As we become one with our technology I think it is unlikely that we will be working for the computer – we will be one and the same.

  • Nicely self referential.  If we merge and become one and the same, won’t we be working for ourselves, which is part computer!  QED J

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