It’s Alarmingly Easy For Machines To Control Us

An art piece turns the user into the used.

People use machines, not the other way around, right?


These days, it’s a little more complicated. As computers become more complex and algorithms run complex processes in the background of our lives, the paradigm of person=user, machine=used has gotten much blurrier. When you’re “using” Facebook, the site is using you just as much if not more by collecting data about you and turning it into profit–all while algorithmically controlling what content (fake and otherwise) that you see.

A new artwork on display at the Science Gallery Dublin aims to give visitors the visceral experience of being used by a machine. Ad Infinitum consists of a machine that uses electric muscle stimulation to force a visitor to crank a lever and feed the machine more electricity. When visitors to the gallery put their hand inside the installation’s clear rectangular case, the machine’s two cuffs clamp down on their arm while their hand rests on an energy-generating lever. Each cuff is equipped with an electrode and once the machine senses the arm inside it, it sends a small electrical jolt to visitors’ arm muscles, causing them to automatically contract and start cranking the lever. Once the visitors start cranking of their own accord, the electrical current stops. But if they get too lazy, the machine gives them another little buzz, forcing them to keep cranking.

Photo: Arthur Silber

Once your arm is inside the installation, the only way for you to be released is to convince another person to take your place in an identical setup on the other end of the table.

“We were really interested in seeing how it feels when machines take control,” says Pedro Lopes, a human-computer interaction researcher at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany. Lopes created the installation with collaborators Robert Kovacs, Alexandra Ion, David Lindlbauer, and Patrick Baudisch. “We tend to philosophize or write novels about it, but we wanted to try it out and give people a chance to experience it,” Lopes says.

Lopes, who visited the gallery for its opening weekend to observe how people interacted with the machine, says that some found it immediately uncomfortable. Others, however, got into a kind of rhythm with the machine. “At first the machine tells you when to do it, but at some point you and the machine are synchronized, and it becomes a kind of physical meditation exercise,” he says. “That’s the moment you internalize.”

Lopes is referring to an internalization process that he’s observed during research for his PhD: people begin to refer to external interfaces as part of themselves when there is this kind of loss of control. In one experiment, Lopes and his colleagues used electric muscle stimulation to completely control one of a participant’s hands, and then had the computer-controlled hand play a slapping game with the person-controlled hand. Lopes says that participants began to say things like, “I cannot beat my own hand,” even when it was the computer controlling it. “Your body is shared between you and the computer,” he explains. “We thought people would have fun but would feel alienated, but people started internalizing the whole thing.”

Photo: Arthur Silber

Ad Infinitum is also a bit of a social experiment: Visitors have to convince someone else to take their place in order to be released. “We saw people getting uncomfortable, but when they tell someone to try it out, they say, ‘It’s interesting, come try it out.’ They sort of lie to each other,” Lopes says. “It becomes this dance of human hosts.”

Ad Infinitum gestures toward a logical gap in how people fear technology. Losing control to a tangible machine that can invade your physical space–like a robot–is a scary proposition (thanks, science fiction). But more insidious, invisible forms of technology, like user-friendly algorithms, exercise much more control over our lives than we might understand.

“In terms of social networks and the whole fake news thing, those are the domains where we feel like we’re totally in power, but it turns out we aren’t,” Lopes says. “Once you can see an interface it becomes a different matter. When you can experience an interface where it lives with your body, versus an invisible piece of code that runs on a machine you’ll never see on the cloud? That’s so abstract. We gave up agency without even understanding we’re giving up agency.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.