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Biology, Society and Machines

George Bugliarello

Elementary Differences

Biology, social systems and machines vary in performance because of their different natures. For one thing, a utilitarian machine—say a toaster—has a specifiable task, but the task and performance of biological organisms and social entities may not be so easily defined. In addition, the different elements of a biosoma are prone to generating different errors. The varying characteristics of the elements can have serious implications for a biosoma's performance.

The human element of a biosoma is bound to commit random errors in performance, and it is powerfully affected by psychological factors. For example, an air-traffic controller will make unpredictable errors, and they may be more frequent under stressful conditions. Society, too, is subject to random errors, which are highly volatile and idiosyncratic. As history demonstrates, society can generate grievous systematic errors, such as those stemming from political theories implemented too rapidly without the benefit of effective checks and balances.

Machines, on the other hand, unlike people and societies, are not likely to commit random errors in their performance if they are well designed. So we rely increasingly on them to strengthen the checks and balances of biological and social systems. This can be done with devices such as drugs or pacemakers that help to restore physiological balances, or with models, simulations and so on, which enhance society's ability to achieve a balanced solution to complex problems. One such problem is the control of damaging emissions to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, such checks and balances can also be achieved through the immense power of new weapons, as in the nuclear stalemate between superpowers. On the other hands, machines can increase risks in two ways. They can fail because of systematic errors in design that may be hard to detect, as in the case of very complex software. And as our dependence on machines increases, those that are designed to help restore our innate system of checks and balances of our biology may also, paradoxically weak them. For example, people with physical limitations (such as debilitating nearsightedness) might be kept alive by machines (eyeglasses). If a machine fails, these people are at great risk and the recuperative capacity of the species is weakened. The compounded effects of the characteristics of a biosoma need to be clearly understood if it is to enhance rather than endanger us.

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