Extinction machines and the religious gut

CPX Associate Nathan Campbell reflects on Dominic Perrottet's leadership on gambling reform - and the influence of his faith on his policies.

Last month, after a period of ‘soul-searching,’ New South Wales Premier Dom Perrottet concluded his ‘Catholic gut’ does inform his position on gambling reform. This came after former ClubsNSW CEO Josh Landis was fired for a perceived religious slur after suggesting Perrottet’s support of limits for poker machines was motivated by his faith.

In our secular, pluralist democracy, it can make people uneasy when public figures are motivated by private faith. Personal religious convictions should certainly not be decisive in political decisions in a pluralist democracy, but what if our ability to ‘soul search’ — or to have a religious gut — is a good aspect of our humanity that makes us capable of imposing life-preserving limits on soul-destroying machines?

Like many machine technologies, poker machines are getting ‘smarter’ and more dangerous. Academic Natasha Dow Schüll spent 15 years researching poker machines and their makers, owners, and users in Las Vegas. In her book Addiction by Design, she describes the way machines have been programmed to respond to the user since the introduction of a ‘dynamic play rate’ feature in the late 1990s that adapted the speed of play based on a player’s interactions with the machine.

Dynamic play rates were introduced alongside computerised menus that allowed players to switch between gaming modes and order drinks or food without switching machines. More recent adaptations and industry trade shows have focused on the machines functioning as mini environments that adapt to the gambler with customisable lighting, imagery, sound and animations to create an ‘affective grip’ on the human, keeping them seated and connected to the machine. As technology has evolved, this grip has tightened.

Even innocently scripted machines will end up seeing humanity as a resource or an obstacle to their purposes.

Schüll quotes a poker machine engineer who described the evolution of these machines: ‘The more you manage to tweak and customize your machines to fit the player, the more [the player] plays to extinction; it translates into a dramatic increase in revenue.’ These are machines built to extract maximum profit, with little regard for the human cost as users ‘play to extinction’.

Philosophers exploring the idea of intelligent machines have created a thought experiment called ‘the Paperclip Maximiser’. This hypothetical machine is programmed to turn metal into paperclips ad infinitum. Left to its own devices, it would end up working out how to consume the whole universe and turn everything into one giant pile of paperclips, and one giant pile of waste.

The experiment is meant to demonstrate that even innocently scripted machines will end up seeing humanity as a resource or an obstacle to their purposes, and that some sort of ‘do no harm’ limits – limits that feel intuitive to humans, but not to machines – must be anticipated and built in.

Schüll suggests ‘addiction by design’ is built into the hardware and software we interact with daily; our smart phones, gaming apps, and social media. ‘Facebook, Twitter and other companies use methods similar to the gambling industry to keep users on their sites,’ she told The Guardian in 2018.

We are not ‘users’ of our machines, argues Soshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, but rather ‘the objects from which raw materials are being extracted,’ as our behaviour, data, and preferences are packaged up for profit. Extracting ourselves from these maximising-machines will prove difficult when they are so firmly embedded in our hands. Here, addiction is a feature, not a bug.

It’s easy to imagine a poker-machine as a profit-maximising robot, built to extract metal coins from a gambler the way a paperclip maximiser might extract an artificial knee. All smart machines need limits and often those building the machines have a vested interest in resisting such limits.

Useful limits might just be the product of ‘soul-searching’, something machines cannot do, and something that, for all their faults and foibles, those with ‘religious guts’ should be in the habit of doing.

That said, religious institutions have too often operated as their own form of extinction machine and been guilty of soul-destroying machinations that have chewed others up. But at their best, perhaps people who believe in a soul to search, who believe that humans are made in the very ‘image’ of God, and who believe in imposing life-preserving limits on addictive technologies were made for such a time as this.

In a world of extinction machines wired to addict and destroy us it might be this very soul searching that liberates us from both the claws of the machines and their makers.

Religious convictions should not be a decisive factor in public policy, but this does not mean we should lose religious intuitions in the face of the machine. If Premier Perrottet’s ‘religious gut’ leads him to soul-searching — both within himself and in the machine, maybe we should welcome this. This sort of intuition might help keep us all from being turned into paperclips.

Nathan Campbell is a Presbyterian pastor in inner-city Brisbane and an Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in Eureka Street.