Competing with Computers

From his first encounters with game theory, or decision theory in the 1960s, Flusser was concerned with the way human beings were different from “apparatuses”. As far as I know, he never used the phrase “artifical intelligence,” possibly because the term itself seems to draw so many conclusions in advance. But he did settle on the idea of “play” — elsewhere defined in terms of a capacity to criticize, resist, or alter games — as exclusively human.

“In contrast to the computer, which is programmed for specific (if potentially for many) games, a human being as a memory (that is, his brain, nervous system as a whole and probably his whole body) is programmed so that various games overlap with one another. Of course neurophysiology, individual and social psychology, pedagogy, etc. are still far from any understanding of this programming, but we can already see that it is different from the programming of computers because the human body, in contrast to a computer, is not only functionally but also internally complex. If we abandon the understanding of a human being as a memory (and regard him as a black box) and concentrate instead on his function (on input and output), we find that he plays completely differently from a computer. Ordinarily, a human being is less competent than a computer in those games for which both are programmed, because the memory of the computer grasps more and functions faster. And yet a human being never really plays within the competence of a single game, as the computer does. Rather elements of other competencies, that is, noises, are always bothering him. For the computer, “decision” means, accordingly, finding the best strategy for winning a game, while for humans beings it can mean to choose between games, absorbing noises, expanding universes. It is not as if we were dealing with one specific difference. People, like computers, can play games, and in the future computers can be programmed as people can be. But at the moment it seems best to use computers for decisions in order to win specific games, and to leave decisions in “metagames” to human memories.

Vilém Flusser, “Spiele,” 330-344 in Kommunikologie, Frankfurt/M: Fischer, 2003 [1996], 334. My translation.

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