Man v. Machine

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"In the beginning, there was man. And for a time, it was good. But humanity's so-called civil societies soon fell victim to vanity and corruption. Then man made the machine in his own likeness. Thus did man become the architect of his own demise." -The Instructor.[1]

[2]Most science fiction writers focus their works on a common topic, the conflict between humanity and artificial intelligence. Originally most of these writers believed that man and machine would engage each other in a global or even extraterrestrial war. However, as society's view of technology has changed, more science fiction writers are suggesting that this is not the only possible outcome. Are society and technology fated to go to war, or is there hope for a peaceful coexistence between man and machine?


The Human Brain vs The Computer

The debate between which is smarter, better, and more practical between the human brain and the computer has been an endless battle full of obstacles. The main issue in equating the two is their differences in functioning. One is biological, the other mechanical; both are symbols of what is human and what is science technology. It is practically impossible to quantify how powerful the brain is, though many have attempted to assign a numerical value to the average brain processing power like the IQ test, mV (power unit of electrical volts), and Wonderlic Personnel Test. However no units of such have been any significant use in measuring a computer’s cognitive ability. We can only measure the computational potential. The notion of thought, conscious, and perception is so complex, the computer has yet to obtain “being” status that incorporates such attributes. It is difficult to say at this point in time weather the state of being will purely always be native to biology, or will software develop to self evolve, grow, and think like an organism. On the flip side however, the brain has yet be be benched marked on a MHz scare or with clock speeds. Therefore to quantitatively compare the two, we have to distinguish two different (almost bias) races: Processing vs Computing. It is obvious computers are able to compute faster than the mind (i.e. calculator), but the brain is able to process stimuli faster. The body is able to respond and comprehend several thousand different inputs from senses at once. Another factor to consider in determining which entity is more powerful is memory. There are two types of memories for practically both the brain and the computer. Short term memory (RAM) and Long term memory (Hard drive) are equally utilized by both. The hardware wins by far in storing data and recollecting inputs/ stimuli, but the brain is able to store multiple traits of a single memory in its storage. It is able to sustain thoughts and senses relating to long and short term memories which hold more weight in measuring and distinguishing the type of data being held. Again, distinguishing which type of power is “better” becomes increasingly difficult as complexities arise in attempts to break down fundamental definitions and apply generalized means of vocabulary to compare and contrast two wholly different entities yet ironically similar.

Society and Machines

Society originally viewed machines and other forms of intelligence differently from humans as fearful, vengeful entities bent on the destruction of humanity. Machines have always been considered to be emotionless, and have been considered lower than humans. But as society has changed and as technology has become a large part of our lives, society is starting to have a different view.

Recent history has shown that machines are becoming smarter than humans in some respects.  It is entirely human to believe that we are superior to other animals on our planet, but the possibility that we can create something which is more powerful than we can handle is a concern for many people.  We contemplate the possibilities of our machines becoming self aware and rebelling against us.  If this happens, what would we do?  What would happen around the world? These questions must be answered. As a result, science fiction writers have begun thinking outside the box, trying to create a story that captures what would happen if machines became smarter than humans. This is seen in Neuromancer, where the artificial intelligences have the ability to control humans, and are much smarter than humans. The base cause generally seems to be the arrogance of humans, attempting to program intelligence with the same motivations and desire for self-preservation and advancement, and giving it the ability to grow far faster than their programmers can regulate.

Real Examples

In 2011, as a test of Watson's abilities, Watson competed on the quiz show Jeopardy! in the show's only human-versus-machine match-up. In a two-game, combined-point match, broadcast in three Jeopardy! episodes airing February 14–16, Watson bested Brad Rutter, the biggest all-time money winner on Jeopardy!, and Ken Jennings, the record holder for the longest championship streak. Watson received the first prize of $1 million, while Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter received $300,000 and $200,000, respectively. At that time, people really worried about whether the "robot age" had come yet. However, through the introduction from the IBM Watson development team, we knew that Watson did not have any "learning" ability; it only used searching and matching algorithms to find the highest possible match for the questions.

Deep Blue was a chess-playing computer developed by IBM. On May 11, 1997, Deep Blue won a six-game match by two wins to one with three draws against world champion Garry Kasparov. Kasparov accused IBM of cheating and demanded a rematch, but IBM refused and dismantled Deep Blue. Unlike Watson, Deep Blue had a short life and could hardly be implemented under other situations. However, Deep Blue showed the world that it was possible for computers to win over a human.

Examples from readings (Spring 2011)


There are many aspects of man vs. machine in this novel. The novel is filled with characters who have altered their bodies with technology, and the story involves the use of Artificial Intelligence to control humans. Molly is a great example of this. She has mechanically altered herself in many ways. Two examples of this are her fingernails and her brain, to a degree. Her fingernails are a clear and easily tangible way of expressing this because she has the ability to call knives to emerge from underneath her fingernails should she need them in a fight. Her brain was also slightly altered with a computer chip that allowed her to express her thoughts, feelings, and sight to another human being, namely Case, as a form of survailence. 


The Shapers and Mechanists alter their bodies and minds. Both groups feel they are better than humans, and have surpassed them. Here is another idea of man vs. machine.

The Mechanists especially are relevant to this idea of Man v. Machine. The Mechanists augment their bodies with mechanical or cybernetic prosthesis that appear to greatly improve their lives. They are even able to live much longer than the standard human. Yet most people would still probably consider these people to be human. We also see the "wireheads" such as Ryumin, who is later becomes a brain connected to a computer system. By the way it is described, it would appear that these people are more computer than human, but the line is so gray at this point that any argument could easily be validated.

He, She and It

He, She and It presents man v. machine by posing the question of how we decide whether a cyborg (like Yod) can be included into society with man. The conflict between Yod and Avram about Yod's freedom is the continuous struggle between man and machine throughout the story.

Yod and Shira's previous lover spend a lot of time competing with each other-- though never directly. Her former lover was human, just like her-- and was jealous of Yod's perfection and machinehood. Yod was jealous of his humanity, which lead to the two butting heads, as well as Shira's fears over what might happen between the two. In the end, humanity won out over machines, as evidenced by the fact that Yod was destroyed.

Flesh Made Word

In Flesh Made Word, we see a scenario of "Woman Vs. Machine." Lynne competes against the program Carol for Wescott's attention and love. At the novel's conclusion, we see that Lynne loses twofold: not only does Wescott choose the program Carol over Lynne, but Lynne creates a program of her own personality as well. While her failure to win Wescott's attention can be attributed to Wescott's callousness, the fact that she could feel jealousy and the program Carol could not probably contributed to her downfall.

The Winter Market

Selections from Sherry Turkle


In hackers, a group of boys at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts decided they wanted to push the limits on what was possible for computers. For a full description and plot synopsis, go here. This story was not necessarily a blatant example of Man v. Machine, but the hacks that they accomplished were certainly notable. They tried to make computers accomplish tasks that, in most cases, humans could accomplish, but the fact that they made a machine accomplish the same task is where the battle came in. Making a computer play chess was one notorious example of this battle.

Other Sources


Society's immersion with technology has allowed humanity to better understand machines and how they operate. The machines dependence on the rules of logic have caused science fiction writers to question whether and why machines would consider going to war with humanity. As a result the science fiction genre has blossomed with multiple scenarios that predict newer and more interesting societies based on the basic conflict of man versus machine. As humans we are still too limited to predict the future, but at least we now have an idea of what to expect.


  1. "The Second Revolution Part I". Animatrix. Internet Movie Database.
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