By Constantin Hühn

Are we soon to become a collective machine? Some tech prophets believe this. Thinking man-machine has a tradition in philosophy. (imago / StockTrek Images / Mark Stevenson)

We are increasingly surrounded by intelligent machines – in order not to lose touch, we have to adapt to machines, ask some tech pioneers. Are we soon to become a collective machine? Or are we already?

Imagine you are working on a construction site and want to use a hammer drill – but it suddenly turns off. Instead, the hammer drill informs cloud-based artificial intelligence and other tools that they don’t have the necessary security clearance and calls on your coworkers to fix the problem: “Every person, every tool, each machine occupies an equal place as an object. ; AI devices distributed throughout the construction site ensure that each object is “recognizable by the system”. “

On the way to becoming a collective of machines?

In her essay “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, the American sociologist Shoshana Zuboff describes the building site of the future that big technology companies are currently dreaming of.

The construction site is of course only one example of the penetration of all possible areas of life by intelligent and networked machines that control our behavior.

Zuboff sees these ideas as a “new global vision of machine relations as a model of social relations.” If we were part of such a collective of machines, we would become “human-machine symbiotes,” as Zuboff quotes US data and social scientist Alex Pentland – who actively promotes this development as a consultant to tech companies.

In a talk, Pentland talks about how adapting to a world full of AI requires the reinvention of humans as “human AI”.

Lawsuits against church bells

So will we soon become a collective machine ourselves? Or machines at least as part of our coexistence? At first glance, this vision takes up a very old point of view: for a long time there was not such a clear distinction between men and machines as the one we are used to today. For example, lawsuits against “machines” were pronounced as early as the Middle Ages: for example, against church bells that did not ring in case of defense.

Series “Who are we? People and others”
“Us”, who is it really – how narrowly or broadly do we define this collective self-designation? And does that only include people or other beings? In Being and Controversy, we set off in search of the “us” this summer as part of the 2021 think tank – and find it in animal metaphors, machine dreams, SciFi worlds, and the “Gaia principle”:

July 11: animal, machine or image of God? “Our borders with other beings are open” Conversation with Thomas Macho
July 11: what animal are we? “When obedient sheep meet power thirsty pigs” Florian Werner on buying hamsters and bees
July 18: Are we becoming a machine? From winder to cyborg Constantin Hühn through the dream of the human machine
July 25: Starfleet or Borg Collective? Christian Berndt on Us in Science Fiction
August 1: are we a planet? Niklas Anbauer on Gaia Theory

The distinction between organism and mechanism that is common today, the sharp demarcation between animate matter and inanimate matter, is only slowly being accepted in modern times – precisely as new automatic machines, such as automatic machines, are being developed. winding.

The soul as an algorithm

However, this new limit continues to be crossed with pleasure – just think of the lingering fascination with hybrid creatures such as golems or androids. And philosophy is constantly redefining the relationship between man and machine. While Descartes declared that the bodies of animals and humans were machines in the 17th century, he specifically differentiated the human soul from them. For Leibniz on the other hand – the founder of binary code and therefore of today’s computers – the soul itself is later an “immaterial automaton”, a kind of algorithm.

French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson with his drums – inspiration for scout La Mettrie. (imago / Leemage)

And the French doctor and educator Julien Offray de La Mettrie completely abolishes the distinction between body and mind by declaring the human being as a “man-machine” who works like a clock: “So let us boldly draw the conclusion, that the man is a machine and there is only one substance in the whole universe, which of course is changed in different ways. “

From factory to social machine

The onset of industrialization finally undermines the man-machine distinction in a very tangible way: the new steam or electric monsters in factories displace workers as the driving force of the labor process, as Karl Marx observes. : “In manufacturing and trade, the worker uses the tool, in the factory he uses the machine. “

The deciding factor is no longer whether people are machines, but rather whether they are made to be. The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault would later describe how ingenious disciplinary techniques shaped workers into “machine-people” in the 19th century. This was taken to extremes at the turn of the 20th century by engineer Frederick Taylor. Its “Scientific Management” tries to program workers for sequences of movements of maximum efficiency. And in Henry Ford’s auto factories, the workers and the assembly line blend into a superior overall machine.

Workers on an assembly line assembling the Ford Model T in the United States: a collective machine? (imago / Kharbine Tapabor)

But society as a whole is also increasingly seen as a machine whose efficiency must be increased. For example, trends such as “social engineering”, which – as the name suggests – wants to plan and optimize social interrelationships like an engineer.

This vision can come to a head in the Stalinist Soviet Union, with its dream of a fully rationalized and harmoniously coordinated collective. George Orwell found captivating images for this in his novel “1984”: gray masses racing in front of the “TV screen”.

With the computer against Big Brother

As an antidote to these totalitarian visions of society, of all things, a new type of calculating machine appeared in the second half of the 20th century: “On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you will understand why 1984 wouldn’t be like ‘1984. “” In a 1983 commercial, the Apple Group touted its new Macintosh computer as a sledgehammer against Big Brother and the Controlled Company Dystopia: With the New Handy Calculating Machines , the individual should defend himself against his own total “machinization”.

Today, however, it is precisely the smart, portable descendants of these personal computers that, according to Shoshana Zuboff, are turning into machines and threatening to undermine our enlightened individuality: “A century ago, it was mass production. and the factories that have shaped mass society in its own image. Today, surveillance capitalism has a new model ready for our future: the swarm of machines in which our freedom is sacrificed for total knowledge for the benefit of others. “

This “swarm” stands out from the premodern “bridges” between man and machine as well as from the juggernaut of machines of the industrial age: always useful, positive, minimally invasive, our new machine colleagues serve as a support – and yet they do not. stop growing. to the strength that drives us, as an extension of a data-hungry tech industry.

Friendly machines and feminist cyborgs

Zuboff’s warnings against external control by intelligent machines and commercial interests are certainly justified – however, we must not lose sight of the potential for emancipation that might be associated with the “becoming machines” of people. And not only today, for example with the “cyborgs” of the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway.

La Mettrie enlightened also hoped that the flattening of the border between man and machine would lead to a more respectful treatment of the environment: “Since the materialist (…) is finally convinced that he is only a machine or an animal, he becomes his own Do not treat the same evil; if he is (…) unwilling (…) to perpetrate on others what he does not want to see perpetrated in himself. “