We like control – and that’s under threat from brainy machines

Padraig O'Morain: The need to control our environments might upset the applecart

Our dryer, being intelligent, had opinions on how to do its work.

Our dryer, being intelligent, had opinions on how to do its work.

 

You don’t often give a name to a clothes drier but our intelligent model became Hal 9000 because of its similarities to the spaceship computer in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both were too intelligent for their own good, both defied their human masters and in the end both had to be shut down.

Our Hal 9000 made me wonder if the future of intelligent machines is as rosy as it looks. In the end, the human need to control our environment might get in the way and upset the, no doubt always-online, applecart.

Our dryer, being intelligent, had opinions on how to do its work. It refused to dry clothes if it thought they were too wet or not wet enough. If it grudgingly made the effort it stopped when it believed the clothes were sufficiently dry for the likes of us – usually, they weren’t. Neither pleading nor swearing could make it finish the job.

I could almost hear that defiant Hal 9000 declaration in the movie: “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

In the end, the search for an unintelligent clothes dryer under way. It’s not an easy thing to find but eventually we succeeded.

Our unintelligent dryer does what you want it to do without complaint or objection. It’s a joy. Because it may be the last of its kind, it is housed in luxury in a bedroom where it enjoys central heating. We had kept Hal 9000 in the shed and I now wonder if, perhaps, it was sulking all along?

Alternative medicine plays to our need for control. Conventional medicine means leaving your autonomy, your control at the door and playing by other people’s rules

But there’s more to this than a dryer. We humans haven’t moved all that far from an ancestral monkey using a stone to dig up an edible root. We like control and that’s under threat from brainy machines.

I have met men who used to lie under cars tinkering with – ie exercising control over – the engine and who felt a sense of loss when cars became so sophisticated you have to connect them to a computer and not interfere.

I have long thought that part of the allure of alternative medicine is that it plays to our need for control. I can walk into a shop, choose a product with which to treat myself and off I go. Conventional medicine is better – we forget how jaw-droppingly remarkable its achievements are – but entering that world means leaving your autonomy, your control, sometimes even your sense of who you are, at the door and playing by other people’s rules.

Even those who insist on driving themselves to the hospital instead of calling an ambulance when they are having a heart attack (I could see myself doing this) are clinging on to control – sometimes with fatal results.

In the world of work, lots of self-employed people would make more money as employees of big companies. But the extra money wouldn’t compensate them for the loss of control over their day.

And in the UK a major motivations of the Brexiteers, as we are all sick of hearing, is to “take back control.” Remainers who point to the dire economic consequences might be missing the psychological point of the exercise.

I’ve even noticed that board games are making a comeback and you will sometimes see people in their twenties playing these games in coffee shops. Another example, perhaps, of taking back control from a wired-up world.

Perhaps we will be more resistant to self-driving cars than some of us think we will because, well, who do you think will be in the driving seat?

What about Hal 9000?

As the van carrying it away disappeared into the Dublin traffic I could have sworn I heard a voice singing “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, I’m half crazy all for the love of you.” It was the song Hal 9000 sang in the movie as he was being deactivated.

I felt a twinge but it was too late. “Hasta la vista, baby,” I muttered as I turned on my heel and went inside to dry my socks.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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