Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

The Real Life ‘Ex Machina’ Is Here

Posted: April 23, 2019 by keasp1 in AI, Events, Film, Robots
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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: www.facebook.com/events/1001883676675274/

 

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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.”

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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.

Watch Despina Kakoudaki’s fascinating talk on how “artificial people” in fiction and film from Frankenstein through to Ex Machina and Westworld serve as foils for examining our “human” emotions, traumas, rights and identities. Dr. Kakoudaki’s public lecture, titled “Unmaking People: The Politics of Negation from Frankenstein to Westworld,” was delivered on March 29th, 2018 at the University of King’s College, Halifax.

You can also listen to Dr. Kakoudaki talk with Alex Mason, producer of the CBC radio show Mainstreet, in an interview about “what fiction teaches us about our creations, our anxieties and ourselves.”

Dr. Kakoudaki is Professor of Literature and Director of the Humanities Lab at American University (Washington, DC) and she is author of Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People (2014).

 

 

 

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.

 

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

 

AutomatonsSeriesPoster-668x1024Starting January 10th, 2018, the University of King’s College, Halifax, is hosting an exciting public lecture series, Automatons! From Ovid to AI, on the culture, science and politics of robots and AI. The series begins with a screening of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic film, Metropolis, with live musical accompaniment by the Upstream Music Association. Talks will be given by international scholars and authors such as Stephanie Dick (Of Models and Machines), Despina Kakoudaki (Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema and the Cultural Work of Artificial People), and Courtney Ann Roby (The Written Machine between Alexandria and Rome). Renowned physicist and commentator Noel Sharkey is scheduled to debate the issue of “fully autonomous weapons systems” with Dalhousie University philosophy professor Duncan MacIntoshTeresa Heffernan, Saint Mary’s University English professor and director of the Social Robot Futures project, will open the series with an introductory lecture on robot imaginaries past and future.

The schedule of talks and events is presented below. More information on each talk can be found at Automatons! From Ovid to AI.

All lectures start at 7 p.m. and take place in Alumni Hall, University of King’s College, Halifax, except for the March 21 and March 28 events.


January 10: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 film, Metropolis, with live electroacoustic music, opens the Public Lecture Series. Venue: Alumni Hall

With musical accompaniment by the Upstream Music Association, the screening explores the intersection between electronics and improvisation, automation and real-time inspiration, featuring some of our finest cinematic improvisors: Amy Brandon on guitar and electronics, Steven Naylor on keyboard and electronics, Lukas Pearse on bass and electronics, and Brandon Auger on synthesizer.

January 17: Imagining Automatons

Teresa Heffernan of Saint Mary’s University and Director of the “Social Robots Futures” project, delivers the opening lecture on the past and future of robots. Venue: Alumni Hall

January 25: Ancient Automatons

Courtney Ann Roby, Cornell University, and author of The Written Machine between Alexandria and Rome (2016). Venue: Alumni Hall

February 14: Panel discussion on “Big Data and Autonomous Vehicles”

With Brian Flemming, Senior Fellow with the Van Horne Institute, Calgary, and Stan Matwin, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, Dalhousie University. Venue: Alumni Hall

February 28: Imagined Puppet Life

Dawn Brandes, University of King’s College and Halifax Humanities. Venue: Alumni Hall

March 7: Asian Robots & Orientalism

Simon Kow, University of King’s College. Venue: Alumni Hall

March 21: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines

Renowned physicist and commentator Noel Sharkey debates Duncan MacIntosh, Dalhousie University, on the role of autonomous weapons. Venue: Scotiabank Auditorium, Saint Mary’s University

March 28: Frankenstein

A special performance and lecture marking the 200th anniversary of the Mary Shelley classic

With Despina Kakoudaki, American University of Washington, and author of Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema and the Cultural Work of Artificial People. Venue: Fountain School of Performing Arts, Dalhousie University

April 4: Living Artificially

With King’s alumna and University of Pennsylvania professor, Stephanie Dick. Author of Of Models and Machines

The 2018 Lecture Series is made possible with assistance from the University of King’s College (Contemporary Studies Program, Early Modern Studies Program and History of Science and Technology Program), Dalhousie University and Saint Mary’s University.