What kind of symbiosis?

Co-existence – only 1 in 10 of our cells is human by chrisjohnbeckett / © Some rights reserved. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license

Writing in the late 1950s, Norbert Wiener and J.C. R. Licklider both saw the future of computing as an interdependent relationship between people and computational machines. Wiener, founder of cybernetics, framed the information age as a second industrial revolution. The first  had replaced the energy of humans and animals with that of steam engines. In the second, computers (machines) would become sources “of control and communication.” We would communicate with machines and machines would communicate with us and with each other. This worried Wiener, who feared that advances in automation would cause massive unemployment and our veneration of  newly powerful computers might lead us to sacrifice our humanity to them. The latter concern grew from his understanding of computers as evolving entities “capable of learning.” Machines that could learn might quickly outpace their human masters, a haunting prospect that Wiener framed as a genie who could not be talked back into the bottle.(NMR, p. 72).  Current studies of human-computer interaction suggest that his fears were not entirely unfounded.

Licklider  also anticipated computers as new enablers of communication and problem solving, but was more sanguine about their relationship with humanity. Indeed he looked forward to a productive human-computer partnership, a relationship of interaction and interdependence he described as symbiosis.

I am struck by how both men invoked physiology and biology to explain computers. Wiener found them analogous to the nervous system and the homeostatic mechanisms that regulate bodily conditions and functions. As one might expect in the heyday of behaviorism, he described the nervous system in mechanistic terms, equating  the firing of synapses to a binary switching operation in a computing machine. Licklider also invoked the nervous system in his vision for computers, but seemed more open to the creative possibilities presented by machines that would not only assist in problem solving, but also “facilitate formulative thinking.”

Computing machines can do readily, well, and rapidly many things that are difficult of impossible for man, and men can do readily and well, though not rapidly, many things that are difficult or impossible for computers.  That suggests symbiotic cooperation, if successful in integrating the positive characteristics of men and computers, would be of great value. (NMR, p 77)

Biologists think about three kinds of symbiosis — mutualism, where both parties need each other; commensalism, where one partner benefits but has no effect on the other, and parasitism, where one party gains at the expense of the other. Licklider’s vision of symbiosis seems most closely aligned with the mutualist model, which is often invoked to describe the relationship between humans and dogs, or between clownfish and sea anenomes.  For Wiener, parasitism offered the more powerful paradigm, and I doubt he found comfort knowing that even the nastiest parasites still need the host to survive.  What I find most intriguing about all of this is the invocation of biological concepts that help us understand evolutionary relationships.  Even if the machine is us(ing) us, it seems clear that we are in this together and changing each other along the way.

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