Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Robotic Imaginary: The Human & the Price of Dehumanized Labor by Jennifer Rhee (University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

Book review by Teresa Heffernan (forthcoming in Novel)

Debates about whether robots will take over jobs or open up as yet unimagined career possibilities dominate the headlines. Silicon Valley and the techno optimists promise us that robots will automate boring jobs and create new ones, leaving humans free to pursue their interests in the arts and sciences and ushering in a great era of equality, creativity, and freedom. Others warn that robots will take over close to half of all human jobs dramatically increasing unemployment. Those owning the machines and platforms will throw workers into poverty, increasing the already unconscionable gap between rich and poor and further ripping apart the social fabric of democracy. These competing scenarios typically frame questions about the impact of robots on labour in world economic forums and in the media.

Robot Imaginary imageJennifer Rhee’s The Robotic Imaginary: The Human & the Price of Dehumanized Labor interrupts this debate to ask more basic questions about how robot labor is imagined by research labs, by the artificial intelligence industry, and in film, art and literature. Bringing this technology into conversation with cultural and literary studies and the humanities, Rhee considers the ways in which it envisions the historical and current understanding of what it means to be human. Organized around chapters on caring and care labor, thinking and domestic labor, feeling and emotional labor, and dying and drone labor; Rhee’s book is concerned with how the contested terrain of the human is constituted and reconstituted by these new anthropomorphic technologies. This labor imagined in robotic form renders the human knowable, calculable, and recognizable while exposing the dehumanized others that exist outside of the boundary of what is considered familiar and normal. Each chapter concludes with a short review of robotic art that offers an alternative imagining, a reconfiguring of the human as unknowable, particular, and irreducible.

The introduction offers an overview of the origins of robotics, which found its first expression in literature, was developed by scientists, and grew with military funding. The term artificial intelligence emerged out of the Dartmouth Project, which brought together a small group of men in 1956 to debate the hypothesis that machines could be made to simulate human intelligence. The collapse of the human and the machine, the anthropomorphic metaphor underpinning the field, expands and continues to expand the boundary of the human beyond this initial metaphoric union, Rhee argues, invoking Paul Ricoeur’s description of the workings of metaphor. The other critical factor shaping robotics has been DARPA (a branch of the American Department of Defence devoted to technological and military superiority), which has funded most of the research in the field since its creation in 1958.

Two of the founding texts in the field, Alan Turing’s test for machine intelligence and Masahiro Mori’s theory of the uncanny valley, illustrate Rhee’s central argument. In the first example, the imitation game begins with a man and a woman who are both trying to convince a judge via a teleprinter that they are female while the judge, who is in a separate room asking questions, tries to correctly identify the woman. Turing then suggests replacing one of the humans with a computer. The game is famously set up to police the boundaries between the human and the machine, but, as Rhee points out, the judge needs to conceptualize the human before s/he can possibly assess human likeness. Hence the game also opens up the possibility for the judge to misrecognize the human rendering the very category “human” unstable and open while exposing the biases and normative assumptions at the heart of this policing exercise. In contrast, Mori’s theory of the uncanny valley, which sets out to determine the robot design that people would best relate to, enforces narrow normative versions of the human, Rhee observes, that are measured against disability and illness. In several graphs, Mori charts the point at which human-like replicas evoke positive affinity as opposed to eeriness. The “healthy” human occupies the highest point on the graph, while the corpse falls at the bottom of the stillness scale and the zombie at the bottom of the movement scale and the ill person gets slotted below the healthy one. In another of his graphs a prosthetic hand occupies the point of negative affinity. As Mori’s theory is in wide circulation and impacts the development of humanoid technologies and social robots, it is important to expose the biases informing his design model Rhee insists.

Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R (1920) first uses the term robot, derived from Czech words for serfdom and forced labor, long before the development of the field. Driven by the capitalist goals of profit, productivity, and efficiency, designers of organic humanoid robots promise to liberate humans from labor and usher in a new era of freedom and leisure. The question of the robots’ “humanness” drives the play as Helena Glory hopes to liberate them from exploitation while their creators argue they are nothing but soulless machines. The play draws on the cultural memory of slavery and fears of slave rebellions to explore the dehumanization of workers under factory capitalism that promises freedom for some at the expense of others. Alienated from their labor, however, the humans in the play fail to thrive and stop reproducing while the robots, claiming their “humanity” by mimicking human’s capacity for domination and violence, revolt and kill all the humans.

Rhee returns to these founding literary and scientific texts in order to open up the entwined questions of anthropomorphization and dehumanization that frame the next four chapters of her book. Chapter one considers Turing’s model of AI as a child that needs to be educated and Weizenbaum’s early “therapist” ELIZA, demonstrating how care labor has been integral to AI. Gendered female, these often humanized AIs serve as emotional interlocutors, child educators, and romantic partners or spouses that perform both domestic and affective work. In contrast, “male” AIs, like Watson, are machines that are positioned as universal experts that disseminate knowledge in fields like medicine and law. Analyzing Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 and Spike Jonze’s Her, Rhee maintains that the gendering of AI thus replicates the historically devalued and underpaid reproductive labor of women that has sustained capitalism. Countering this devaluation, however, Rhee points to robotic art “that highlights affect’s constitutive role in cybernetics, transforming cybernetic circuits of communication and control into those of affect and care” (57). Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456, Norman White’s The Helpless Robot, Momoyo Torimitsu’s Miyata Jiro, and Simon Penny’s Stupid Robot and Petit Mal are presented as examples of robot artwork provoking affective responses from their audiences, demanding that cybernetics be grounded in an ethics of care and interdependence, and foregrounding these traits as critical components of being human.

The second chapter on “thinking” further builds on the marginalization of reproductive labor in the field of AI. Early closed-world versions of AI that relied on highly schematic and simplified models of reality were followed by the hope that the combining of multiple “micro-worlds” would lead to greater complexity in AI systems. Rhee argues that the micro-world approach of AI, which is built on stereotypes and familiar norms and erases the unruliness of the real world, finds it parallel in The Stepford Wives. Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, famously recounts the murder of women and their replacement with docile immaculate generic robots that are programmed to do housework and serve their husbands. Like the closed-world AI models, the female robots remain sealed off from the public world of wages, politics, and intellectual work while real women with their complicated desires, politics, and aspirations must be killed off in order to sustain the unchanging ahistorical gendered hierarchy of Stepford.

Yet Rhee also argues that the fate of the real women in Stepford is sealed in part because of their refusal to acknowledge the working-class women, who as “outsiders” of the suburban enclave, are able to document the crimes committed in the area. Concerned with the fate of middle and upper class white housewives, Friedan’s work also ignores the many white working class women, single women and women of colour who were working outside the home in jobs that offered neither economic self-sufficiency nor independence from men, as bell hooks has noted. Moreover the presentation of domestic labor and child rearing, the task of raising another human being, as unskilled and “mindless” perpetuates the devaluation of “women’s” work. The Stepford Wives and its contemporary adaptation, Ex Machina (2015), highlight the exclusionary and at times exploitive narrative of white middle-class feminism that finds racialized and classed women aiding white women’s liberation even as they are excluded from it.

Rejecting the symbolic micro-world models, Rodney Brooks developed an embodied approach to robotics in the 1980s that encouraged robots to interact with messy dynamic environments to develop machine “intelligence” with the hope that they would “evolve” upward to humanoid AI. Yet while Brooks’ robots are physically situated in the world, they, as several critics have pointed out, are culturally and historically “dumb,” perpetuating the closed world approach to AI. In addition to military robots, Brooks’ company iRobot designs autonomous robots, like the Stepford robots, as mindless domestic laborers. In contrast to closed-world AI, Rhee concludes this chapter with several examples of robotic art—including Stelarc’s Fractal Flesh and Ping Body—that stress interdependence, open worlds and the vulnerability of the body.

In the third chapter, one of the most fascinating, Rhee explores social robots and emotional labor as another aspect of devalued reproductive labor and its ties to the military. In the 1990s, with new research on the importance of emotions in intelligence, robots, funded by DARPA, were developed based on the contested theory of “universal” emotions. Rhee argues that both the myth of universal emotions and the work of producing legible emotions are ways of policing the boundary of the human. Technologies developed from this theory that assume the external body reveals the truth of the individual, such as SPOT (screening of passengers by observation techniques) adopted by US Homeland Security, not only have had little success but expose the power relations embedded in them. Rhee explores the gendering and racializing of emotional labor and the dehumanization that is perpetuated by these technologies in her reading of Philip K Dick’s We Can Build You and his later novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The Voigt-Kampff test, at the heart of this latter novel, imposed by those in control, measures emotional responses to scenarios or images to determine the “human” status of the responder. The test of course is never used on its android hunters and Deckard’s sense of shame in brutally eliminating the androids at the command of the state remains inside him in any case and is never visible on the surface. The chapter concludes with two feminist robotic works, Omo by Kelly Dobson and Swarming Emotional Pianos by Erin Gee, which challenge the theory of the universality of emotions and its use in developing dehumanizing policing technologies.

The final chapter on dying considers the entanglement of reproductive labor and drone warfare. Targeting victims and perpetrators outside of any judicial system and under a veil of secrecy, drone warfare perpetuates the colonial and racial legacy of determining who gets included and who gets excluded from the category of human, which has been part of both post Enlightenment subjectivity and US labor history. Rhee reviews American drone policy that identifies any military-aged man in certain areas as the enemy and that refuses to investigate those killed in the strikes or accurately document civilian deaths. She also reviews the history of cybernetics as a “war science” and Norbert Wiener’s early work on defense systems, which encouraged fighter pilots to identify with cybernetic German pilots to better understand the enemy other. The racialized Japanese enemy, however, were characterized as insects and vermin rather than as cyborgs, so no identification was encouraged. This dehumanizing racialization continues not only in drone policy but also in the asymmetry of drone targeting fueled by the massive gulf between operators and their targets, viewed as “ants.” From the high accident rate of the machines to the “ambiguous” information that ends with dead civilians, the technology also reveals itself as highly fallible exposing the misguided faith in technological omnipotence and quantifiable information that drives this form of warfare.

Reviewing drone art, Rhee provides a provocative analysis as she unpacks the differences between works that invite their western audiences to identify with racialized targets and those that challenge that identification in order to underscore the legacy of racial violence in America. She points to the limits of art works that promote identification with those “over there” by invoking Judith Butler and her questions about whose lives count as grievable. Positioning America as a place of safety and justice, works such as Home Drone and Drone Shadow fail to acknowledge the continuity between drone strikes overseas and the violence and injustices inflicted on marginalized communities at home, a point driven home by the adoption of militarized robots by some local US police forces. In contrast works such as Teju Cole’s Seven Short Stories about Drones refuse to ground ethics in familiarity and identification and instead insist on mourning lives that are unknowable. The artistic collective behind #NotaBugSplat, James Bridle’s Dronestagram, and Omer Fast’s film 5,000 Feet is the Best also suggest, Rhee argues, “an ethical relationship that foregrounds disorientation, uncertainty, and the unknown rather than the familiar, the known, the predictable ” that direct cybernetic technology and drone warfare (172).

The Robotic Imaginary exposes the ways in which robot technologies perpetuate existing racial and gender hierarchies by devaluing certain labour and certain humans and valuing others while exploring robotic art as way of opening imaginings that challenge the colonial, patriarchal, class and racial histories. As robots invade work spaces and as privatization erodes social responsibility, Rhee rightly insists we should ask of every robot figure “who is being dehumanized?” And what version of human is considered “sacrosanct and familiar”? While automation and the restructuring of the labor force by multinationals like Google and Facebook that are buying up AI and robotic technology lies outside the argument of Rhee’s book, I did wonder about the very limits of the metaphor of the human as machine and whether dehumanization doesn’t begin with industry leaders in Silicon Valley who have so successfully propagated the view that there is no difference between the two. Rhee’s otherwise excellent reading also falls a little short in its American-centric focus. What, for instance, would she have to say about Japan’s embrace of the “robot revolution,” in lieu of immigration, that is trumpeted in the face of a shrinking labor force? Or about the global fight for control of AI.

A vital contribution to the field, Rhee’s book does not argue fiction is “coming true” as is so often the case in scientific and media reports on robots, but instead it turns to literature and art as providing some insight into the always shifting ground of what it means to be human. Rhee’s book is essential reading for anyone negotiating the intersections of literary studies, anthropomorphized robotics and the impact of these technologies on society.

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 HAL-CON.com.

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.

New Content Item

By Teresa Heffernan, Series Editor of Social and Cultural Studies of Robots and AI (Palgrave Macmillan)*

As science was emerging as a discrete and soon to be dominant way of knowing and as the industrial revolution was transforming the English country-side, Thomas Love Peacock in his “Four Ages of Poetry” (1820) argued that poetry was increasingly useless and retrograde in the age of scientific invention: “A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.”

capek_play

Staged production of R.U.R. (source Smithsonian.com)

In the age of robotics and artificial intelligence this dismissal of fiction, and the humanities more generally, has only escalated as literature departments, often treated as relics of the past, exist on life support while think tanks like the well-funded Singularity University, founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil and located in Silicon Valley, thrive. This for-profit uncredited institution, sponsored by companies such as Google, Deloitte, and Genentech, says its mission is to teach people “to utilize accelerating technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Despite its declared interest in “humanity,” the Singularity University offers no courses in the humanities and culture—nothing, for instance, on literature, linguistics, history, art, classics, gender studies, music, cultural studies, postcolonialism or philosophy. Promising to catapult us into a shiny future full of instant fixes, the complicated terrain of thousands of years of culture is cast aside in favour of the truth and practicality of technoscience harnessed to corporate interests. Humanity’s “hardest problems”–social inequity, colonialism, war, genocide, climate change, pollution, water scarcity, dying oceans, mental health, superbugs, and disappearing species—this “university” promises can all be solved by “exponential” technology. These problems are never, it seems, about the paucity of the ethical imagination.

C-3PO 1977 (Star Wars)

Roboworld, Pittsburg (photo k.e.asp)

While fiction is often credited with inspiring or predicting technological inventions, when it comes to “serious” discussions about the future of robots and AI, fiction is reduced to cheerleading. The “truth” of technoscience, steered by corporate and military interests, takes over as AI and robotics engineers, computer scientists, and CEOs mine the rich array of “humanized” machines and artificial people that have populated literature. For instance, Amit Singhal, a software engineer and former vice-president at Google, wrote: “My dream Star Trek computer is becoming a reality, and it is far better than what I ever imagined.” So too, Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Laboratory was inspired by R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars, concluding that:  “While emotional robots have been a thing of science fiction for decades, we are now finally getting to a point where these kinds of social robots will enter our households.” Two of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world–Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos—also credit Star Trek for their companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin. Bezos announced at the 2016 Code Conference: “It has been a dream from the early days of sci-fi to have a computer to talk to, and that’s coming true.” The firm SciFutures hires fiction writers to use storytelling, defined as “data with soul,” as a way of accelerating and advertising “preferred” futures; its corporate clients include, among others, Ford, Visa, and Colgate. Yet this utilitarian and overly literal approach—the claim that fiction is coming true—shuts down the ethical potential of fiction.

Ursula K Le Guin at the lectern at the National Book Awards.

Ursula LeGuin (source The Guardian 2014)

Ursula K LeGuin, in her powerful speech at the National Book Awards (2014) that went viral, argued that what we need are people who can imagine “alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.” She died in January but her words about needing to get over our obsession with the latest technology grow more relevant by the day as we confront a host of new problems that have emerged from the blind investment in technoscience: from autonomous weapons and a new arms race to the erosion of democracy with the mining and selling of data, to the built-in prejudice of proprietary black box solutions that are marketed as objective to name a few. As a literary critic, I want to retain the critical edge that fiction has to offer. Robots were born in fiction: the 1920s play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek first used the term, derived from the Slavic term robota (forced laborer), to discuss the mechanization of humans under factory capitalism with its drive for efficiency. Fictional robots or talking computers are no more “real” than talking lions, clever rabbits, witches, demons or Captain Picard. From Greek mythology to Aesop’s Fables to Star Trek—literature has always been about exploring and negotiating what it means to be human, about who falls inside and outside that category, and about what sort of world we want to inhabit. The very nature of fiction calls for interpretation, it traffics in metaphor and metonymy, and it refuses to be rendered literal or forced into a singular future.

A_Defense_of_PoetryPercy Bysshe Shelley, responding to Peacock with his spirited “A Defence of Poetry” in 1821, wrote: “The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.” Shelley’s “Defense” might serve as a useful reminder of the limits of the reductive approach to fiction that seems to dominate. In the periods in history when calculation trumped imagination, Shelley argued, there was the greatest social inequality: the rich got richer and the poor got poorer as the society was torn between “anarchy and despotism.”

As we witness the rise of global despots, the displacement of humans by wars and climate change, the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the disregard for the planet and fellow species in a world motivated by profit, we cannot look to new technologies alone to solve these problems. The cultivation of an ethical imagination that Shelley promoted at the outset of the industrial revolution seems newly urgent. Machine learning and robotics have lots to offer but as these technologies impact all humans, other animals and the planet they cannot continue to operate in a silo. For the record, crabs don’t march backward they move sideways.


*This blog was originally posted on the host site for Robotics & AI: The Future of Humanism, a Palgrave Macmillan book series on the social and cultural impacts of AI and robotics.

kakoudaki_picture-1024x731Dr. Despina Kakoudaki, Professor of Literature and Director of the Humanities Lab at American University (Washington, DC), will give a public lecture this THURSDAY, 7:00 pm, March 29th at Alumni Hall, King’s College. Her talk is titled, “Unmaking People: The Politics of Negation from Frankenstein to Westworld.”

Abstract: Drawing on the novel and film versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and contemporary science fiction such as Ex Machina and Westworld, Dr. Kakoudaki explores the idea and treatment of the artificial person in a human world. In particular, she’ll look at how mechanical or constructed people are often set up as foils to humans as a way of examining our emotions, traumas, rights and identities.

Dr. Kakoudaki will also give a short introduction to the special performance of “Drums at Organs: or, The Modern Frankenstein” at the Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre, on Wednesday, March 28th at 7:00pm.

kakoudaki_cover_comp4.jpgDr. Kakoudaki (PhD, Comparative Literature, University of California at Berkeley) is author of Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People (2014), which traces the history and cultural function of constructed people and animated objects in literature and film. She has also written on robots and cyborgs, race and melodrama in action and disaster films, body transformation and technology in early film, the political role of the pin-up in World War II, and the representation of the archive in postmodern fiction.

 

Dawn talk 3What do puppeteers mean when they speak about bringing a puppet ‘to life’? What is the difference between a prop and a puppet? Why do these questions matter not only in the creative arts but also in the study of how artificial intelligence and automatons are imagined? Dr. Dawn Brandes (Fountain School of Performing Arts and Halifax Humanities) will be exploring these questions in her talk this Wednesday, Feb 28th, 7:00pm at Alumni Hall, King’s College, Halifax. This talk is part of the public lecture series “Automatons: From Ovid to AI.” For information go to: Automatons Lecture Series.

 

Ancient Automatons Lecture

Posted: January 22, 2018 by keasp1 in Education, Events, Fiction, Robots, Technology

Courtney Ann Roby, Associate Professor, Cornell University will give a talk on ancient automatons this Thursday (7:00 pm January 25th) at Alumni Hall, University of King’s College, Halifax. Dr. Roby is the author of Technical Ekphrasis in Greek and Roman Science and Literature: The Written Machine between Alexandria and Rome (2016) and Hero of Alexandria (forthcoming).

Abstract: Hero of Alexandria, known for his works on topics from theoretical mechanics to catapult design, describes his theatrical automata as the culmination of mechanics. This lecture will introduce these automata and the mechanisms that drove them, consider what it means to think of “programming” in terms of concrete materials rather than as abstractions of bits and bytes, and trace the cultural value of Hero’s automata from the Roman world to the Renaissance.

heffernan-poster-3-1-e1516029997438.jpgNews headlines, government reports, scientific journals, and museums often use fiction to frame discussions of the robotics and artificial intelligence industry, implying a direct trajectory between the fiction and the science. Yet when it comes to real-world policies, the literary imagination is marginalized in discussions of a technological future with the oft-voiced argument that we need to keep the “fiction” out of science. There are all sorts of ways in which fiction and art more generally are mobilized in the service of the robotics/AI industry in order to prove the “creativity” and autonomy of artificial intelligence; what gets shut down, however, is the critical potential of art. Resisting the tendency to read science as fiction coming true, Teresa Heffernan will consider the very different ways science and fiction imagine robots, artificial intelligence, and technological futures.

When/Where: 7:00 PM, January 17 at Alumni Hall, University of King’s College, Halifax.

Information: www.ukings.ca/automatons