Machine versus man! | By Khalid Saleem


Machine versus man!

A brand new element has entered the age-old Man-Machine equation. In fact, this would appear to be part of the quest of the Machine to take over what were once Man’s prerogatives.

One refers to what is euphemistically called the computer virus. Some years back, news on the computer front was that a virus had ‘infected’ the drone’s ‘US-based cockpits’.

US government officials were reported by Reuters to be investigating how it managed to infect the “heavily-protected computer systems at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where US pilots remotely fly the planes on their missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere”.

The US government officials – aforesaid – might since have overcome the said virus, though reportedly “the virus had resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech’s computers”.

What is important, though, is the principle of the thing.Remember, the Wikileaks episode?

It is now Machine versus Man, rather than the other way around! Having got that off the chest, a line or two about technological contraptions in general may not be out of place.

Machines, as everyone is aware or at least should be aware, have come a long way during the past couple of decades or so.

One wonders if the reader remembers the times when most machines could be operated simply by fiddling with a knob or two.

Those were the days! All one was required to do in those good old days was to click one knob to turn the beastly contraption on, and then to fiddle with the second one in order to achieve whatever it was that one intended to achieve.

Alas, that wonderful epoch of simple and uncomplicated living is gone forever.

These days, one would be obliged to take private lessons in mastering the Operating Manual before one can so much as lay a hand on the machine – any machine.

Even to master the operating procedure of such a mundane contraption as a phonograph, one may be obliged to undergo training roughly equivalent to a graduate course of yesteryears.

An example or two may be in order. Not so very long ago, one had learnt about the invention by Japanese scientists of a robot having surprisingly special features.

To cut a long story short, this automaton possessed all the attributes of a gentleman’s gentleman.

In layman’s terms, the robot in question was designed to be its master’s personal valet, i.e. to be at his beck and call and to pander to his every whim.

Anyone rich enough to afford one could, thus, become the proud possessor of a mechanized version of the inimitable Jeeves – sans the latter’s unpredictable temperament, of course!

At around the same time, the world had also been introduced, through the courtesy of the ever-vigilant press, to the ‘Intelligent Home’.

This dwelling, as per the claim of its inventers, could run automatically and efficiently just with the help of a computer.

If the programming were thorough enough, the Intelligent Home could be expected to run itself.

The refrigerator, for instance, could keep itself stocked automatically by regularly ordering ‘short’ items through the inter-net.

What it amounted to was that the intermediate ‘variable’, a.k.a. the housewife, had thereby been neatly eliminated from the equation?

Needless to add, the Home in question could also be run by remote control, if necessary, via a laptop computer.

Another one up on the housewife! All of the aforementioned, brings to fore the fundamental question: who (or what) is more powerful – man or machine?

There is no denying that Man invented the machine. As a matter of fact, all technological thingumies owe their existence to nature’s super-computer – the human brain.

And yet why does one continue to have the queasy feeling that it is the machine and not the human being that is calling the shots, rather than the other way around?

The computer appears to have all the answers – answers that the human being, with all his or her God-given intelligence, appears to be unable to muster.

Should all this not point to the conclusion, then, that the time may well be at hand for humankind to be wary of its own creation?

That critical juncture may thus be upon us when the moving finger points to the need for drawing a line at some point in time and space.

Man, for his part, may be well advised to take cognizance, before it is too late, of the vulnerability of his own position vis-à-vis the machine.

All in all, would the writing on the wall not indicate that the fundamental equation between Man and Machine needs to be defined well and proper and betimes, so that there is no ambiguity as to what (or whom?) is boss?

Only when this equation is put in its proper perspective – with all its divers variables in their proper places – will humankind be afforded the respite it so desperately needs to take a good, hard look at the shape its future is going to take, provided always that there is a future!

Needless to add, the treatise afore-stated is perforce founded on the presumption that the world is not about to end in a hurry.

This is in itself a moot point. The way the world’s powers that be are behaving all around, though, engenders grave doubts as to whether it is safe to accept the said presumption as valid.

Given this state of affairs, it may yet be premature to write off the pessimistic scenarios spun by the merchants of doom.

They may be in the know of a thing or two, unbeknown to us lesser mortals. And who knows, the Machine may well be destined to eventually come out at the top. A horrifying thought, that!Still, as they say, forewarned is forearmed!

— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.


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