Archive for the ‘AI’ Category

The Tyranny of Life Under Algorithms

Posted: November 24, 2019 by teresaheffernan1 in AI, Fiction, Homophobia, Racism
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A Short Meditation on the Tyranny of Life Under Algorithms

by Teresa Heffernan

Alan Turing–the force behind theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence, and the Universal Turing Machine–was instrumental in cracking intercepted coded messages, which enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis. He was charged with “gross indecency” in 1952 and punished for homosexuality. He submitted to chemical castration in lieu of prison. Just before his 42nd birthday, two years after the charge, he committed suicide though some speculate his death was an accident. In the final section of Will Eaves’s brilliant novel Murmur, about a character based on Alan Turing, Alec Pryor faces a dream-like trial where he appears before “The Council of Machines”:

“I was left to imagine what sort of extraordinary mental realm it was they inhabited in which pain and lies and deceptions were still said to offend, but offended as depressing inexactitudes rather than injustices, and I realized that I did not have to imagine very hard, because I had inhabited something very similar for most of my life, had treated a number of people as a series of unsatisfactory propositions, and had understood therefore—with a shudder—the propensity in German Fascism to treat whole nations and races in like manner, and had fought against it accordingly. And then, of course, I ended up being treated that way myself.”

Under the regime of machine logic “inexactitudes” displace injustice, pain, and lies. Humans, nations and races are reduced to “unsatisfactory propositions.” Too late, Alec comes to realize that although he fought against the Nazis, the council of machines, that he has helped install, shares the same logic. Just as he is marked as a homosexual for loving despite dominant heteronormative codes, under the tyranny of algorithms and statistical averages, there is similarly no room for figures that don’t fit.

There is no coming Singularity, no roadmap to Artificial General Intelligence—AI is math not magic. Don’t’ be distracted by the massive propaganda machine of Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter and the billionaires that own them, who are selling this version of the future. It is snake oil. These Silicon Valley titans care far more about their stock prices and expanding their control than they do about justice, fairness, democracy, science or truth. Conspiracy theories of the most violent sort spread like wildfire on these platforms. Their algorithms automate and accelerate historical injustice. The data they steal from you is used to turn you into a statistic with no recourse to appeal. If you don’t fit the model, you are tossed out of the system. This is what Pryor portends as he stands before the Council of Machines in his “forward-thinking hallucination”: fascism on steroids.

A talk by Teresa Heffernan at the “Ethics of AI in Context” interdisciplinary workshop, September 17, 2019. The workshop was hosted by the Ethics of AI Lab, a project initiated by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics.

A talk by Teresa Heffernan

ETHICS OF AI IN CONTEXT. A series of talks presented by the Ethics of AI Lab, Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto

4 – 6 PM, Tuesday, Sept 17, 2019. Room 200, Larkin Bldg., 15 Devonshire Place, Toronto

The era of “disruptive” technologies has given way to an ethical quagmire. Biased algorithms, invasive facial recognition software, proprietary black boxes, the theft and monetization of personal data, and the proliferation of hate-spewing bots and deepfakes have undermined democracy. Killer robots and the automation of war have led to a new arms raise with Vladimir Putin declaring whoever leads in AI will rule the world. The concentration of wealth and power of corporations that own most of this resource-intensive technology and the environmental price tag of AI can only hasten climate change. In response to these ethical problems, a number of research centres are now investing in the intersection of humanities and AI in order to study its impact on society, notably the Schwarzman College for Computing at MIT, the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society at the University of Toronto, and The Schwarzman Centre’s Institute for Ethics in AI at Oxford. An article about the MIT initiative noted: “The approach has the potential not just to diversify tech but to help ‘techify’ everything else” while Geoffrey Hinton said: “My hope is that the Schwartz Reisman Institute will be the place where deep learning disrupts the humanities.” What these statements disavow, however, are the very different epistemological approaches that structure these fields. If we are to begin to deal with the ethical issues of AI, the humanities should not be “disrupted” and made to bow to the logic of big data, algorithms, and machines. In this talk, I will argue that it is only by keeping alive the tensions between artificial intelligence and the humanities that we can hope to have an informed debate about the limits and possibilities of this technology.

For more information see Ethics of AI Lab, Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto

The Real Life ‘Ex Machina’ Is Here

Posted: April 23, 2019 by keasp1 in AI, Events, Film, Robots

ss4_poster_finalTeresa Heffernan will present “The Real Life ‘Ex Machina’ Is Here: Restoring the Gap between Science and Fiction” at the Machine Agencies Speakers Series on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 from 3 to 5 pm. Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology, Concordia University, 1515 Rue Sainte-Catherine W. EV Building, 11.455. Montréal, Quebec. For more information:


keasp photo Big Think Nov14,2018The Big Thinking public panel on the social implications of AI, held at the Halifax Public Library on November 14, was a lively and well attended event. The discussants included Teresa Heffernan, Ian Kerr, Fuyuki Kurasawa and Duncan MacIntosh, with Howard Ramos (Dalhousie) as moderator.  Courtney Law provides a sense of the event here, noting for example that Teresa Heffernan “reminded the audience that AI and humans are inextricably linked because AI is built on data created by humans” and that “we sometimes assume ‘fauxtonomy’ when it comes to AI, attributing more complexity to machinery than it is due because we are influenced by fictional representations.” The event was sponsored by Dalhousie University, the Federation of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSHRC), and the Halifax Public Library.

SSHRC has published a video recording of the entire event that you can view below or access here.

llwlYou are invited to join Teresa Heffernan (Saint Mary’s University), Ian Kerr (U of Ottawa), Fuyuki Kurasawa (York U) and Duncan MacIntosh (Dalhousie) for a panel discussion on ‘the potential social impacts of artificial intelligence and the role humanities and social sciences will play in identifying the legal, ethical and policy issues we should start considering today.’

Where: Paul O’Regan Hall, Halifax Public Library Central

When: Wednesday, November 14, 2018. 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM

Moderated  by Gabriel Miller, Executive Director, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The event is sponsored by Dalhousie University (Offices of the President and the Vice-President Research, plus the Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences, Computer Science, Law, and Management), the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Halifax Public Libraries.

The event will be free and open to the public with a reception to follow.

Questions? Contact

Join the Facebook event.

halconTeresa Heffernan, professor of English at Saint Mary’s University, will give a talk at the upcoming HAL-CON science fiction, fantasy and gaming convention, a massive multi-format event attended by some 9,200 people in 2017.

Dr. Heffernan’s talk, “Fiction Meets Science: Ex Machina, Artificial Intelligence and the Robotics Industry,” is scheduled for 6:15 pm, Friday, October 26, 2018.  Location: Room 502, Ballroom level 5 at the Halifax Convention Centre — 1650 Argyle Street, Halifax, NS. For information and tickets go to

ABSTRACT: The conflation of AI and fiction in the cultural imaginary helps to drive the fantasy aspect of the robotics/AI industry that encourages the view that there is no difference between a computing machine and a human. If fiction offers an exploration and interrogation of the shifting terrain of what it means to be human, the industry’s overly literal readings of fiction fetishize the technology, strip it of its cultural and historical context, and claim it for the here and now. While the industry exploits fiction to help animate machines and bring them to “life” in the name of a certain technological future, it erases the “fictiveness” of the fiction that keeps open the question of the future and what it means to be human.

My talk–“Fiction Meets Science: Ex Machina, Artificial Intelligence and the Robotics Industry”–will argue that we need to restore the gap between the literary and scientific imaginings of AI and robots. Resisting literal readings of fiction, it considers the ways in which metaphors shape our reading of humans and other animals. For instance, in the field of AI, rather than the computer serving as a metaphor for the brain, the brain has come to serve as a metaphor for the computer. The film Ex Machina, as a modern day Frankenstein story, exposes the consequences of this metaphor that reduces humans to computing machines that in turn entraps them in an algorithmic logic under corporate control. In this film, it is not Ava, the programmed machine, that is the subject of the experiment, but rather Caleb who finds himself locked in the robot lab by the end of the story.