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Out of Control

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 cold.

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.