Machines are supposed to be tools that serve human ends, but the relationship is slowly shifting – and not in our favour
The other day I had to log in to a service I hadn’t used before. Since I was a new user, the website decided that it needed to check that I wasn’t a robot and so set me a Captcha (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). This is a challenge-response test to enable a computer to determine whether the user is a person rather than a machine.
And then the penny dropped (I am slow on the uptake). I realised that what I had been doing was adding to a dataset for training the machine-learning software that guides self-driving cars – probably those designed and operated by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project owned by Alphabet Inc (which also happens to own Google). So, to gain access to an automated service that will benefit financially from my input, I first have to do some unpaid labour to help improve the performance of Waymo’s vehicles (which, incidentally, will be publicly available for hire in Phoenix, Arizona, by the end of this year).
The strangest aspect of this epochal shift is how under-discussed it has been. The metaphor of the boiling frog comes to mind, according to which if the creature is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out; but if it’s put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. As it happens, zoologists think that frogs are generally smarter than the metaphor supposes. The question, though, is whether humans are equally smart: have we become so subtly conditioned by digital technology that we don’t see what’s been happening to us? Have we been conditioned to accept a world governed by “smart” tech, trading convenience and cheap bliss to the point where we become a bit like machines ourselves?