Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 5

One of the main topics this week was the idea of a utopian/dystopian society created by technology.

We started the session by talking about computers and the way they think. They are not random, their task is to achieve a goal, they are goal-driven. Humans are much more random with their thoughts, we think just for pleasure, we ponder. When we think we don’t always have to have an end goal when we think about something.

Humans learn through experience whereas computers are always told what to do. An example here is the driverless car, humans program the car with certain algorithms and build in a set of values, but these are our values not the cars. Recently a Tesla car was involved in a fatal crash in Florida, Read the article here. The driver put the Tesla into ‘autopilot mode’ on the motorway.

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The reason the car crashed is due to sunlight hitting against a white vehicle and causing glare that the Tesla car did not distinguish. Humans understand and expect glare on a sunny day, it is something we learn from a young age through experience, nobody teaches us about glare, we just happen upon it. But a computer has to be taught everything and through huge amounts of data being fed into the system, it is not going to learn through experience.

We talked about dystopian societies and how most sci-fi films are dystopian in theme. Think of a sci-fi film and they are almost all dystopian! It’s true! Blade Runner, Metropolis, The Matrix, Gattaca, Minority Report, Frankenstein, V for Vendetta, Total Recall, the Terminator, the list goes on and on. We tried to think of a utopian sci-fi film and the only one we could think of was Star Trek. Funny that I am not a big fan of Star Trek, the dystopian films are much more interesting in my opinion.

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We discussed if we are in utopia or dystopia with technology now and we said we are coming into dystopia. The last few years have been a utopia with the rise of social media for the good and the explosion of new devices, 3D printing, apps and much more. However, more and more we hear about the negative impact of social media, cyber bullying, cyber crime, hacking, viruses, surveillance, data loss, addiction and many more issues.

We finished by talking about AI – artificial intelligence. We read that computers don’t produce meaning from their thinking, we are the ones that do this. Computers interpret symbols, it has reference but no sense. We saw problems with the word ‘manipulate’, we didn’t think that computers manipulate data, they mainly add and subtract, order and arrange data, not much more than that.

So, over half way through the course now, 3 sessions left.

Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 4

The main focus this week was the Edge question – What to Think About Machines That Think. We read and discussed a range of articles that addressed this question.

We started the session by discussing the question, ‘What is thinking?’. We gave Kerry lots of different ways we think, such as analysing, creative, imagination, rational and about the self. We decided that thinking is a hard term to define and that if we think that what humans think is thinking and we see that a machine can also think this way then machines are also capable of thinking. One difference is that machines/computers do not have emotion or experiences. The way humans think draws on personal experience, emotion and much more. In other words we are a subjective species, whereas machines are objective.

As humans we are also very aware of ourselves as a physical entity – phenomenology. Computers are not aware of themselves and they have no conscious. They also do not feel pleasure or pain as we do. However, a machine does have sensors so it can experience the real world through these input devices, but that is just data collection basically. Anything that requires data processing then computers are the best, but real experience they do not do. Kerry looked worried when she realised that computers could be great wine tasters, another human job gone!


We then read part of an article by Steven Pinker titled ‘Thinking does not imply subjugating’. A quote from the article is below:

“Just as inventing the car did not involve duplicating the horse, developing an AI system that could pay for itself won’t require duplicating a specimen of Homo sapiens.”

he is making the point that when we invent and create we are not trying to copy something from nature completely. The cars we invented do not exhibit other behaviours of a horse, much like inventing the airplane without building in the behaviour of a bird. We have a fear that if something exhibits human behaviour then it will run amok and take over the world, which just isn’t the case.

The next article we discussed was by Matt Ridley and is called ‘Among the machines, not within the machines’. A great quote from this article is below:

“The true transforming genius of human intelligence is not individual thinking at all but the collective, collaborative, and distributed intelligence – the fact that it takes thousands of different people to make a pencil, not one of whom knows how to make a pencil.”

He points out that what truly changed the human race into world dominators was the invention of exchange and specialisation – the network effect. We all really liked this article and agreed with Ridley’s ideas. He argues that if we had remained largely autonomous people we would still be living in caves living as hunter-gatherers. And our greatest invention is the Internet as it connected large numbers of computers together, the Internet is the true machine intelligence.

“Where machine intelligence will make the most difference is among the machines, not within the machines.”

The last article we discussed was by Thomas Metzinger and was called ‘What if they need to suffer?’. He made the point that we’re smart because we hurt, we regret and we know we are mortal beings. In other words, we care! He asked the question whether good AI will also need to care about itself and other things. If AI has its own thoughts, will these thoughts matter to them? We talked about if we could make a machine capable of suffering, should we do it? Kerry and the rest of us were pretty much against it. What would be the point? It isn’t ethical anyway. The slave trade was all about human suffering, slaves were dehumanised, and there have been other examples of suffering that we would not wish on anybody. Kerry said it was too close to playing God. As humans we all suffer, some more than others, and a lot of suffering is unfair and cruel and nasty. Kerry said that when we have children we know they are going to suffer, it is inevitable, so should we have children? If we know a baby is going to be born with a terrible disease and it is going to suffer for 5 years and then die should we have that baby? The author came up with a set of conceptual constraints that should be treated as objects of ethical consideration. Any system that satisfied all constraints should be treated ethically. For example, an unconscious robot cannot suffer.

This was another very interesting week of the course that raised some important issues. Half way through the course now, just 4 weeks to go!


Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 3

This week was the final week of the history part of this unit. We continued to discuss Marx and Heidegger in particular.

Kerry began the class by talking about an article about cyborg insects, you can read it here. This article is about scientists fitting a real dragonfly with a small backpack that can directly issue commands to the insects neutrons and can control its flight.

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It is hoped this kind of technology could one day be used to treat humans with certain medical issues. A very interesting article.

Back to the philosophy and we discussed Karl Marx and his theory of Political Economy. Marx recognises that the labour process is man and nature participating together and we must obey the rules of nature, we are part of nature. We are transformative beings and we reveal parts of our nature when we are involved in the labour process and the tools that we use. However, we are not truly transformative beings as we still make the same mistakes over and over again. Marx says we are not technology, we design and make something useful, an instrument. We went on to talk about the economy and how it is a social thing, the economy is for the purpose of society. We talked about how economy should be more in the service of society, if everyone had a stake in the economy then we would be more responsible and not waste resources if there was a direct knock-on effect to us. An example is global warming, we are all invested in our planet and future generations.

We then went back to Martin Heidegger and he had some fantastic points about technology. He said that we are most aware of technology when it breaks! This is so true. At its best, technology disappears and is seamless, this is an essential feature of Heidegger.

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Kerry’s first example of this was the pencil. The point here is that when you are writing with a pencil you are not really aware of the pencil, it is invisible. The pencil is doing its job and it becomes an extension of your arm. Another example given was a car. When you’re driving you are (sometimes, mostly) not even aware of the car. Reading glasses was another example, when we wear glasses and when we read, watch TV or do work we are not aware of them, they essentially become a part of us.

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Present-at-hand means you are aware of the technology, it is disconnected from us. If technology is present-at-hand we get annoyed with it and cast it away or try to fix it. Until it becomes a ‘means-to’ it is of no use to us.

Ready-at-hand means the technology is invisible, it becomes an extension of us, it is seamless and working perfectly. This also applies to the human body, when it is working perfectly we are not aware that we are doing certain things. When we walk we are not consciously thinking about our legs, but if you have a bad foot then you would be thinking about it.

The next Heidegger point was that technology is a method of revealing or concealing.

“The potter’s wheel, the paint brush, the hydro electric plant, the computer, all reveal or disclose something about human beings. Of course humans must have the potentiality to use the technology, however, it is in using technology that these aspects of the human are produced.”

Technology can reveal certain skills that we possess, however, it can also conceal skills we used to have and need. An example is with autonomous cars, we no longer need to learn how to drive a car as the computer inside the car will drive it for us, so our driving skills become concealed. 3D printing can also be seen to conceal skills of arts and crafts, however, other skills may be revealed, such as computer design skills. Email conceals hand writing skills but reveals other technological skills.

We finished the class by reading an article about nano-intentionality. We read that living organisms are intrinsically goal-directed, it is inherent in the behaviour of living eukaryotic cells. So we started to compare biology with computers. We decided that biological beings have conscious, purpose and are self-aware. It is also in our advantage to be aware of ourselves, flight or fight. Computers are programmed, not conscious or self-aware. Machines have no reason to be self-aware.

So this week we finished the history side of the course and now we will start to explore more contemporary philosophy. More to follow next week!

Philosophy of Technology: Human vs Machine – Week 2

The main focus of this weeks class was Technology and Politics. The meaning of politics here is that of society, the way we organise and arrange ourselves and how we promote certain values. So, a broad socio-economic arrangement. The question we wanted to answer was is technology politically neutral?

We started by agreeing that technology does not have embedded values, this was indisputable. However, the way technology is arranged may have political value. One such example of an arrangement of technology is the gun. A gun is designed to destroy things. Kerry said she could have a gun on her mantle as use it as a vase, but it was not designed to be a vase.

Another example Kerry gave was of an internet algorithm called a ‘bot’. An example of an internet bot is an algorithm that performs highly repetitive tasks such as create new content and interact with users like any human would. She used this article as an example –¬†Bots without borders: how anonymous accounts hijack political¬†debate –¬†and in the article it reports that approx. 19 million bot accounts were tweeting in support of either Trump or Clinton in the weeks before the US presidential election.

“Pro-Trump bots worked to sway public opinion by secretly taking over pro-Clinton hashtags like #ImWithHer and spreading fake news stories.”

These bots are “polluting political discourse on a grand scale”.

So the question is does the algorithm have embedded political value? We decided that it does, in a similar way to the gun. It has an embedded intrinsic value to do damage. It is politically arranged.

We talked about the printing press and how it is egalitarian in its design. Technologies such as Google and Wikipedia are also egalitarian in their design and nature. One way we know this is because China bans Google, proving its egalitarian nature. Kerry said that at its best the media is egalitarian.


We then talked about the telephone, an unsupervised and fast way to communicate. A telephone can be hacked and tapped, is this embedded within the technology? The fact that a telephone can be hacked does that mean that that was embedded in the arrangement of the technology?

Kerry talked about how the arrangement of a train means it crashing is inevitable.

We then started to talk about Karl Marx and how he talked about what has emerged, how the technology came first and the social arrangement followed. How the technology determined how people were arranged. An important question was who owns the means of production? Who’s interest is it to have a certain arrangement of people? Marx said oppression was built in to technology and was used to create capital, this is early capitalism. Today we consume capitalism, we have a need to consume products but we need to work and earn good wages in order to be able to afford to buy products. We are now locked in to technology, we couldn’t give it up even if we wanted to as we rely on it every day and we would feel left out if we didn’t have the latest device. Technology is meant to be about freedom, not slavery, but sometimes we are slaves to technology.


Eventually we get to Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism and modern science. He was really the first person to marry science with technology – STEM! One of his most famous quotes is …


The quote means that with knowledge comes the power to do something. He was a great believer that science should belong to everyone, not just the rich and the powerful, and that science and knowledge should be shared, given away for free for the greater good.

We finished two thoughts, that power should not be exclusive and that capitalism is a great motivator, incentive driver.

Week 3 to follow shortly…