Vision farming

I always felt that the original Matrix missed a great opportunity, when they used that stupid battery metaphor to explain why the machines needed humans. Supposedly they depended on us for our “bioelectric energy” or some such nonsense. Pins and needles as the sole power source for a planetful of machines? Yeah right. That and $3.50 will buy you a lukewarm cup of coffee. And even if you did buy that line, why humans? Couldn’t they have found a more useful species, like, oh I don’t know, electric eels?

No. There had to be a better explanation. It didn’t take long to figure it out: the real reason the machines needed humans was to solve the problems that were hard for machines. Being intelligent, they recognized that every intelligence solves some problems more efficiently than others. So, rather than destroy us, they simply took advantage of our inherent capacities. But in order to do so, they had to make us want to solve their problems. The best way to do that? Make us believe that we were solving our own problems. Thus the Matrix: an artificial virtual world full of dark, terrible situations, designed to make us solve problems we wouldn’t otherwise care to solve. Need a new high-tech weapon? No problem: just assign every person in the Matrix to one of two imaginary superpowers, and make them go to war. History has shown that with the proper motivation, humans will invent all kinds of horrible stuff.

What I like about this version was that it explains not just the existence of the Matrix, but also why it’s such an awful place. (This eliminates the need for yet another boring and nonsensical speech by Agent Smith, in which he explains that the original Matrix was a paradise, but it fell apart because humans didn’t believe in it. Say what?)

Anyway, I bring this up now because of an interesting post by Clive Thompson over at Collision Detection, about humans being used in exactly this way: to solve problems that are hard for machines. See also Thompson’s 2002 article on the same subject.

We’ve used computers as our render farms for years now. How appropriate that they should start using us as vision farms. And how strange that this should turn out to be not just a better narrative device for a sci-fi movie, but actually true.

I, for one, welcome our new machine overlords.