Archive for the ‘Progress narratives’ Category

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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.”


Staged production of R.U.R. (source

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.

By Teresa Heffernan

The tagline at the 2017 Robot Exhibit at the Science Museum in London reads “the 500-year quest to make machines human.” The show has attracted a great deal of media attention—The Guardian’s review announced: “Science Museum’s robotic delights hold a mirror to human society” while The Telegraph preview reads “A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery ” and the Londonist insists “You HAVE TO SEE Robots At The Science Museum.”[i] But the reviews by the public, who paid the 15 GBP entrance fee, have been less than enthusiastic—with lots of grumbling about all the robots that were static and inactive. This is a typical complaint on TripAdvisor: “We stood in front of the robot thespian, looking like idiots as we assumed he could engage with us and asked him questions. In fact, he just jiggles about a bit and repeats random speeches. A tape recorder and an electric motor attached to a shop mannequin could easily create a similar effect.”[ii]  So what accounts for this discrepancy in the reviews?

Thespian robot 2

Thespian robot

The expectation that robots be life-like and interactive has been fueled by fiction and film.  Carefully curated and edited, the video clips in the media reviews, complete with soundtracks, promise an evocative spectacle: the robots seem to perform autonomously as if they exist in a state of constant life-like motion. But this digital magic jars with the actual experience of attending the show, which exposes all the limits of machines–from expensive energy costs to bugs to programming glitches to mechanical problems to wires—the robots suffer the same issues that plague most modern technology, leaving its audiences underwhelmed.

Bleeding Jesus 3

Bleeding Jesus

The first rooms of the exhibit are dark but get progressively lighter as you move through the show till you get to the lab-like lighting of the present, suggesting the progress from mysticism to science. This story of robots begins in the sixteenth-century and its fascination with mechanical clocks and anatomical models and continues through the industrial revolution with its factory machines and ends with the current industry of social robots.  “Marvel, Obey, Dream, Build, Imagine” the exhibit instructs its viewers.  The religious age with its “magical” screaming Satan and bleeding Jesus automatons commissioned by the Catholic Church to inspire awe and deference amongst its followers eventually gives way to the modern age with Kodomoroid and Pepper, social robots that vow to transform our lives and become our partners.

Model based on 1920 play 5

Model based on 1920 play

But have we really always been dreaming about “recreating ourselves as machines” as the exhibit suggests?  The term robot was first applied to artificial people in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. and was derived from the Slavic term robota (forced laborer) that referred to peasants enslaved under the feudal system in 19th century Europe; the term was used in the play to discuss the mechanization of humans under factory capitalism.  Robots were born in fiction but the anachronistic use of the term in this show begs the question about why begin with machines as opposed to other fantastical scenes of creating life:  Prometheus’s modeling of man from clay or God’s creation of Eve from a rib or Pygmalion’s female statue that is brought to life by a wish? I am always suspicious of linear historical timelines that suggest the inevitability of the current market for robots.

Then again, narrating robots as originating in the context of priests, power, showmanship and magic makes sense given the contemporary business of AI and robotics, with its promises of miracles. Perhaps it is better to understand robotics and AI as the direct legacy of religion given the captains of these industries and their claims of god-like powers. When asked about the future of AI, Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, who heads a team developing machine intelligence and who insists we will all live forever, announced in IEEE Spectrum’s June 2017 issue: “I believe computers will match and then quickly exceed human capabilities in the areas where humans are still superior today by 2029.”[iii]  I suspect visitors to the robot show will rightly remain skeptical of this claim.

[i] See: “Science Museum’s robotic delights hold a mirror to human society“; “A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery – Robots, Science Museum“; “You HAVE TO SEE Robots At The Science Museum.”

[ii] See reviews on TripAdvisor: “Just A Review of the Robots Exhibition

[iii]  “Human-Level AI Is Right Around the Corner—or Hundreds of Years Away