“When machines control us”

Patrick Baudisch, Pedro Lopes, Alexandra Ion, Robert Kovacs, and David Lindlbauer have made a bit of a splash with their interactive art installation, ad infinitum: a parasite that lives off human energy [1].

This must be “art” because it is transgressive, and has no other reason to exists, except to transgress.

The device is essentially a torture machine, designed to trap and enslave a person, and make him pull a lever to generate electricity to power the trap.

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.”  (from [2])

The second part of the joke is that this device will never let you go until another person takes your place in the other sleeve. This social contingency pushes the human to work to get the next victim entrapped, in order to save his own skin. To be clear, this is a form of psychological torture.

The third part of the piece is the artists “message”, which is something about how we don’t realize just how much computer interfaces “use” us. (News flash: many of us have been pointing this out for many years.)   The designers have been observing how people react to this vicious treatment, and they make some not especially deep remarks about agency.

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.”” Quoted in [2])

The device was on show in Dublin, so I haven’t actually tried it myself.   But I’m pretty sure I would not stick my hand in it myself.


My own view is that this “art installation” is highly unethical, poorly designed, and should never have been accepted for public interaction.

First of all, if this was a “psychology experiment” instead of “art”, it would never pass the human subjects reviews. This is an implement of torture, both physical and mental. The potential harm to the subject is difficult to justify, because there is no benefit to them or to science, or to anyone.

Worse, there is no informed consent, and they are not allowed to withdraw consent when they want to. (There was no “opt in” nor an “opt out”. No operative consent at all. This simply is not a properly designed psychology experiment.

Second, this is a terrible example of computer interface design. The device appears to be a harmless toy, but isn’t. There are no warning stickers, nor any safety overrides.A good interface protects the user from harm, it doesn’t trick him into harming himself.

It’s awful, awful design.

Third, the “message” depends on a completely spurious point about “agency”.

If this device were operated by a human, executing the same “algorithm”, we would rightly recognize it as cruel and obnoxious. We would not yickety yack about how “we think we are in power, but sometimes other people have power over us”. Duh. People have power over us all the time, and sometimes we don’t know it, and sometimes we think we are in charge more than we really are.

So? We’ve proved this fifty years ago in legitimate research.  (See Zimbardo and all the variations on “social control”.)

But in this case, the (lazy) bully has programmed a computer to torture the victims. So, there isn’t a human pushing the button, just a computer set up by a human.

While the victim isn’t the “user”, so much as the “used”, he is actually being “used” by the people who created the algorithm.  Instead of some minimum wage guard “just following orders”, there is a computer just following instructions.

If the artists want to make an interesting point, they might talk about how they have succeeded in concealing their role in this torture by creating a computer system with a simple, autonomous algorithm. “The computer did it, not me”, seems to be their defense.

The computer algorithm as insulation from moral responsibility.

Now that would be an interesting thing to point out, though they would have to take responsibility for their own misdeeds.

This is indeed a trenchant commentary on today’s computer based business models. Any misbehavior is OK so long as it is done by an algorithm which isn’t human and isn’t morally responsible for the crime.  See Uber.  See AirBnB.  See Facebook.  Etc.

Really, this is a terrible, terrible exhibit. If this were done in a war zone, it would be considered a war crime.


  1.  Patrick Baudisch, Pedro Lopes, Alexandra Ion, Robert Kovacs, and David Lindlbauer, ad infinitum: a parasite that lives off human energy. 2017. http://a-parasite.org/
  2. Katharine Schwab, It’s Alarmingly Easy For Machines To Control Us: An art piece turns the user into the used. , in Co.Design. 2017. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3069099/its-alarmingly-easy-for-machines-to-control-us

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