Should We Be Letting Machines See for Us?

Anyone who has seen James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator remembers “seeing” through the eyes of the killer android sent into the past as it scans its surroundings for clothes, weapons, and, eventually, its target. German filmmaker Harun Farocki would later call those pictures “operational images”—the machine-made and machine-used pictures of the world that threatened to supplant not just how people see, but people period. 


Anyone who has seen James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator remembers “seeing” through the eyes of the killer android sent into the past as it scans its surroundings for clothes, weapons, and, eventually, its target. Beneath the fleshly form of the future “Governator” resided a robot skeleton sent from the future to eliminate the main human foe of the machines’ plan to rule the future. German filmmaker Harun Farocki would later call those pictures “operational images”—the machine-made and machine-used pictures of the world that threatened to supplant not just how people see, but people period. In the November 2014 issue of the journal e-flux, Trevor Paglen revisits Farocki’s now-decade-old work and updates it for today. Paglen raises interesting questions about the very nature of how machines see as well as whether we should be letting machines—from license plate readers at intersections to drones in combat zones—see for us.

Paglen begins by pointing out just how visionary Farocki’s early studies were. “Harun Farocki was one of the first to notice that image-making machines and algorithms were poised to inaugurate a new visual regime,” Paglen argues. “Instead of simply representing things in the world, the machines and their images were starting to ‘do’ things in the world. In fields from marketing to warfare, human eyes were becoming anachronistic.” Knowing that machines operate more efficiently than humans ever can, we’ve ever more increasingly outsourced the watching of our world. More significantly, not only were we letting the machines see for us more and more, but we were also letting those same machines act upon what they saw in ways never before imagined.

Paglen cites specifically Farocki’s films Eye/Machine I, II, and III and how in them Farocki “thought these bits of visual military-industrial-complex detritus were worth paying much attention to.” (A clip from Eye/Machine III can be seen here.) In the Eye/Machine films, Farocki shows how computerized vision systems track (and target) moving objects (sometimes for termination). Paglen confesses to initial confusion over Farocki’s fascination with these images before realizing they were just another part of Farocki’s career-long “method [of] look[ing] into the dark and invisible places where images get made.” For Farocki, the fact that the War on Terror was waged remotely through the “eyes” of drones and satellites threw into question who was really “calling the shots”—the machines visualizing and assessing the situation or the human pressing the “go” button based on those pictures.

Realizing that a decade is an eternity in terms of modern technology, Paglen decided to revisit Farocki’s obsession with “operational images.” Paglen first realized that today’s images are mostly “images made by machines for other machines,” with little human intervention once the systems are in place, leaving “Farocki’s dramatic exploration of the emerging world of operational images now anachrononistic.” The visualizing rise of the machines (to borrow a Terminator sequel title) is already here.

Farocki’s “operational images” idea isn’t just anachronistic in Paglen’s eyes; it’s also never been true. “In retrospect, there’s a kind of irony in Farocki’s Eye/Machine,” Paglen explains. “Farocki’s film is not actually a film composed of operational images. It’s a film composed of operational images that have been configured by machines to be interpretable by humans. Machines don’t need funny animated yellow arrows and green boxes in grainy video footage to calculate trajectories or recognize moving bodies and objects. Those marks are for the benefit of humans—they’re meant to show humans how a machine is seeing.” James Cameron gave his Terminator a point of view because we the human viewers—not the machine—needed one.

In a way, we’ve been fooling ourselves by designing machines that provide images for our benefit that the machines themselves don’t need. As Paglen found out in his research on today’s “operational images,” “machines rarely even bother making the meat-eye interpretable versions of their operational images that we saw in Eye/Machine. There’s really no point. Meat-eyes are far too inefficient to see what’s going on anyway.” Today we put our literally blind trust in machines more and more “even as they’re ubiquitous and sculpting physical reality in ever more dramatic ways,” Paglen points out.

“We’ve long known that images can kill. What’s new is that nowadays, they have their fingers on the trigger,” Paglen chillingly concludes. Yes, a human builds the drone and a human presses the button that commands the drone to kill, but that same commanding human follows the information fed to him from the machine itself, whether transformed into Faroki’s humanized, “meat-eye interpretable” “operational images” or left as computerized raw data, virtually invisible to human eyes and, possibly, humanizing judgment.

Should we be expecting Terminators to materialize around us with their hidden “operational images” looking to end us? Probably not. But this shift in the how images are made and how we are shaped by them is just as troubling. Paglen doubts there is any way back where we “learn to see this world of invisible images that pull reality’s levers.” However, he calls on “other artists to pick up where Farocki [who died in July 2014] left off, lest we plunge even further into the darkness of a world whose images remain invisible, yet control us in ever-more profound ways.” In a world in which images are more prevalent and powerful than ever before in human history, knowing that we’re controlling how those images are used and how they might be using us is more important than ever.

[Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.]

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.