The word I'm looking for is more like "co-control." It's seen
in some mechanical settings already. Keeping a 747 Jumbo Jet aloft and
landing it in bad weather is a very complex task. Because of the
hundreds of systems running simultaneously, the immediate reaction time
required by the speed of the plane, and disorienting effects of
sleepless long trips and hazardous weather, a computer can fly a jet
better a human pilot. The sheer number of human lives at stake permits
no room for errors or second best. Why not have a very smart machine
control the jet?
So engineers wired together an autopilot, and it turns out be very
capable. It flies and lands a Jumbo Jet oh so nicely. Flying-by-wire
also fits very handily into the craving for order by the air traffic
controllers -- everything is under digital control. The original idea was
that human pilots would monitor the computer in case anything went
wrong. The only problem is that humans are terrible at passive
monitoring. They get bored. They daydream. Then they start missing
critical details. Then an emergency pops up which they have to tackle
So instead of having the pilot watch the computer, the new idea was to
invert the relationship and have the computer watch the pilot. This
approach was taken in the European Airbus A320, one of the most highly
automated planes built to date. Introduced in 1988, the onboard computer
supervises the pilot. When he pushes the control stick to turn the
plane, the computer figures out how far to bank left or right, but it
won't let the plane bank more than 67 degrees or nose up or down more
than 30 degrees. This means, in the words of Scientific American, "the
software spins an electronic cocoon that stops the aircraft from
exceeding its structural limitations." It also means, pilots complain,
that the pilot surrenders control. In 1989 British Airways pilots flying
747s experienced six different incidents where they had to override a
computer-initiated power reduction. Had they not been able to override
the erroneous automatic pilot -- which Boeing blamed on a software bug -- the
error could have been fatal. The Airbus A320, however, provides no
override of its autosystem.
Human pilots felt they were fighting for control of the plane. Should
the computer be a pilot or navigator? The pilots joked that the computer
was like putting a dog into the cockpit. The dog's job was to bite the
pilot if he tries to touch the controls; and the pilot's only job was to
feed the dog. In fact, in the emerging lingo of automated flying, pilots
are called "system managers."
I'm pretty sure the computer will end up as co-pilot. There will be much
that it does completely out of the reach of the pilot. But the pilot
will manage, or shepherd, the computer's behavior. And the two -- machine
and human -- will be in a constant tussle, as are all autonomous things.
Planes will fly by co-control.
A graphic jock at Apple, Peter Litwinowicz, fabricated a great hack. He
extracted the body and facial movements from a live human actor and
applied them to digital actors. He had a human performer ask, in a sort
of theatrical way, for a dry martini. He took those gestures -- the raised
eyebrow, the smirk on the lips, the lilt of the head -- to control the face
of a cat. The cat delivered the line in exactly the same manner as the
actor would. As an encore Litwinowicz then mapped the actor's
expressions onto a cartoon, and then onto an inert classical mask, and
finally, he animated a tree trunk with the actor's facial controls.
Human actors will not be out of jobs. While some characters will be
wholly autonomous, most will be of a cyborgian nature. An actor will
animate a cat, while the artificial cat pushes back and helps the actor
be a better cat. An actor can "ride" a cartoon, in the same type of
cocontrol that a cowboy rides a horse, or a pilot rides a
computer-steered airplane. The green figure of a digital Ninja Turtle
may dart about the world on its own, but the human actor sharing control
supplies the appropriate nuance every now and then in a smile, or
finishes a just-perfect growl with a jeer.
James Cameron, the director of Terminator 2, recently told an audience
of computer graphic specialists, "Actors love masks. They're willing to
sit in makeup chairs for eight hours to put them on. We must make them
partners in synthetic character creation. They will be given new bodies
and new faces with which to expand their art."
The future of control: Partnership, Co-control, Cyborgian control. What
it all means is that the creator must share control, and his destiny,
with his creations.