Dec. 22, 1997: Man vs. Machine

Robert Krulwich takes a look at man's evolving relationship with machines.
10:24 | 12/21/11

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Transcript for Dec. 22, 1997: Man vs. Machine
It was John Henry the great steel drive in math and first symbolized this -- battle between man and machine. An old folk song has John Henry competing with a machine to see who could build railroad tracks faster John Henry one. But he died from the effort. And that was just a sign of things to come from cotton -- to automobiles to computers machines. Have steadily outpaced -- skills until today. When it is simply impossible to imagine a world where we and our creations are not intimately bound together. But what about tomorrow. -- -- grow more and more complex as they think more and more -- and powerfully what will our relationship but come. Will -- be servants or partners. Or -- masters. The question might sound like something right out of science fiction but believe me there are a lot of powerful bankers already considering the notion. Reason enough for us to take a closer look. And what's coming down the road we thought we Begin to Nightline's Robert Krulwich examining. What's already here. To Begin let's say it's a dark. And stormy night like this would add an airport and somewhere but this guy are two different ways both of them trying to land and visibility. -- you can see it's. One of the planes up there that. Boeing built in Seattle. The other an Airbus built in Toulouse France to commercial jets. The pilots can't -- -- things because -- so cloudy but there's no problem because for years now. Passenger planes have had an automatic pilot system -- device inside the plane. That on cloudy nights takes over. And it helped by a guidance system on the ground most the passenger planes cannot actually. -- -- -- -- We do it all the time. -- just make things a little -- -- the picked upon at the sudden shift in the way that we have now a dangerous wind -- here's a Boeing. Here's the Airbus their boat heading suddenly down lower and lower losing speed -- it right into the ground that is good. Here. I'm gonna show you this -- simulators so we don't have to died. In this situation each pilot decides I've got to seize control from the computer now and execute a drastic. Drastic rescue maneuver which means -- control -- relief from the computer but wait. In -- -- panicky situation like this. Foolish judgment he's more reliable the human pilot. But the computer and interestingly the Boeing company and the Airbus company have very different views on this. In the Boeing plane as we plunge down the pilot can push this button right here. It means you sure you want to do this he -- it again and that means yet. And now captain bill Hammond is in total control so the Boeing company has decided -- the final decision the last word. Should go to the human. If US to fly this plane upside down now he can. But in the Airbus they take the opposite view they liked the computers. You wanted to do some drastic move on the Airbus threat go way up where way to go after way to the right -- what what happened. They would take you to a point that in the computers -- -- it would stop that drastic movement to maintain the aircraft. NAS -- configuration. The Airbus computer will not let the human go beyond certain fixed limits if the patent wants to go too far over. Here. The -- it wants to go too far up. He can so even if our pilot bill absolutely believes that Clyde upside down would -- his life in an Airbus. He couldn't. -- -- In that Boeing could -- -- -- -- The Airbus company is saying that in this highly dangerous situation in the end they trust the computer the computer is safer. The blog -- does not I don't know again we choose the human the human is more reliable. And this contest between then and machines that take -- -- interest in Rhode. Would we give the last word -- that's that's the big debate in technology. Talk to any software engineer talked any designer it boils down to those kinds of questions. So we called Danny Hillis -- I'm an engineer. -- engineer -- is one of the nation's leading thinkers about technology. He works now for the Disney company has do we and he says -- -- stormy night he put his trust not in the human. But in the computer. It's able to keep -- all the details much better. The compliments humans that was have a sort of skin -- -- if you will that are better for flying an airplane than him. And a certain things that machines just to better. That same choices -- when you buy a car with anti lock brakes. In effect what you're choosing to do if you're choosing to let -- computer controlled Rupert in -- simple. Because guess what that's exactly the same issues airplane. There are some situations more and more of them all the time -- the computer does it better. There's going to be some level of complexity which humans -- important element you have to with. The Pentagon's known this for years. In an era back at how bad. Traveling at supersonic speeds with missiles coming in from every direction and the -- week dodging and swooping. There is no way -- Humans couldn't possibly. -- question isn't it possible. And increasingly you'll find computers doing -- in other fields like medicine. That humans couldn't possibly do take part victory. Instead of opening the patient's chest why -- human hands. Now you can make safe. Smaller institutions by slipping into tiny robotics to -- And then perform the operation by issuing -- voice commands to a computer hardware -- And status. -- -- -- -- -- -- At first these things seem scary. But win they work as Michael train all -- almost certain. Would not report -- no war because this technology makes your life but. And as the machines get better and smaller and more intimate. People use the not just to perform tasks but think about it many of us now put contact lenses right on our eyes -- we -- it. Morally but cochlear implants right in our years so we can -- -- and and Karen. I and a -- so instead of just building better and better new tools. We could think of these tools as a way to build better and better people. By putting more and more machines. -- -- our bodies. Well I believe it won't be too long before you can sort of insert a little -- someplace. A tiny memory chip that would let you remember it seems that -- could carry it behind terrier or even inside your -- Wouldn't -- prefer no but that may be just me I think I think you're just an all or nothing system. Step by step by step says Danny Hillis who we humans will learn to repair. And enhanced more and more of our body until eventually we will decipher. Our most subtle organ the brain. And one day we will be able to replace damaged brain cells with new artificial ones sell by sale in effect. Rebuilding our brains. But it could be the by the end of that process like if I could actually replace all of the neurons and number and my electronics. -- would still be you. Wouldn't. Well do you think you're still here you are cut off a finger replace -- with artificial finger yet. But -- bringing. Contains my most intimate sense of myself. -- artificial brain inserted bit by bit contained the true me. What the keyword is with companions. Yes your brain contains. Yourself but it doesn't yourself. I think the real use the pattern of thoughts and memories -- -- -- some personality. And the whole complex of things -- you. Could still movement. His humor this is leading don't -- if the question is who gets the final word the person with the machine. Couple who appears to like in the terminator movies we and our machines becomes so intimate we've become one. And for the most basic reason machines can last a lot longer than we do. So that the ultimate reward is that you don't have to die. But this budget. That -- -- I think I think -- if I have a choice of nonexistent or existing and some different and about it. I would definitely -- existing and -- to an -- So one possible outcome in this competition between people and machines is the idea that was built into the design of the Boeing jet. That India and yes humans will dominate machines but only by creating the most intimate alliance. In fact those who want to be immortal like any we'll have to -- -- signed a machine. But you know literally if you had a chance. -- An active. Healthy life for what's that 200 years. Would you would you do it in stainless steel -- order you've got a little thing that you know let's say up for the first hundred years has since been listed. -- -- -- -- -- He would rather be dead than be alive in the stainless steel line. I just wonder whether being alive and he was -- -- the theme is being alive collection but right now it's probably not the sense of. Cuddly feel more interest. Team.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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