Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

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

Janelle Monáe is an American singer and songwriter whose concept album series, The Metropolis Suite, portrays androids as sentient beings enslaved by industrial masters. Monáe’s android avatar, Cindi Mayweather, is the mediator between hands and mind, between human and robot. This time-traveling android holds out a spiritual promise of love and triumph. In this mix, we can ask what motifs or myths adhere in the idea of artificial intelligence (AI)? And is religious thinking antithetical to political resistance?

In an interview with OKP TV, Monáe speculates that the android will become, like women, blacks and gays, another target of marginalization and exploitation. She pursues this political theme in her music video for Q.U.E.E.N., which stands for queer, untouchable, emigrant, excommunicated, negroid. The video’s narrative is set in the future, where a museum director introduces Q.U.E.E.N. as “a musical weapons program in the 21st Century.” The video shows that Monáe’s politics are resolutely anti-essentialist and intersectional:

In this coalitional politics, the android Cindi Mayweather is a figure of in-betweenness who blurs the distinction between robot and human. Though she is a savior of mythic proportions, Mayweather is caught up in the mode of technological production. Monáe addresses this question of whether a rebel android can entirely resist the constraints of her making. As Mayweather sings in “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, “I’m a product of metal, I’m a product of metal, I’m a product of the man.”

In the OKP TV interview, Monáe says that Ray Kurzweil’s idea of the technological singularity was an inspiration for her work. Like Monáe, Kurzweil is sure that a computer’s performance of consciousness will be indistinguishable from the human variety. As he discusses in his book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil (2006) refers to the acceleration of technology’s progress as the “essential nature of an evolutionary process.” He assumes that artificial intelligence is the necessary next step for biological evolution and predicts that the singularity will give humans immortal life in the form of technologically supported consciousness. Kurzweil also maintains that the singularity is, by definition, equitable in that information technologies always become increasingly accessible and affordable.

Computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues that Kurzweil and other AI proponents risk effacing the mode of production and mythologizing AI: “The notion of this particular threshold—which is sometimes called the singularity, or super-intelligence, or all sorts of different terms in different periods—is similar to divinity” (Lanier 2015). By mythologizing the singularity, Kurzweil diverts critical attention away from the context of technological production and the power differential between industry and the body politic.

The Cindi Mayweather mythology brings out tensions between religiosity and artificial intelligence instead of making the latter a covert stand-in for the former. She uses religious motifs alongside affective continuity between humans and androids. This brings her discourse of AI back to a genealogy between past oppressions and future ones. As the ArchAndroid, Cindi Mayweather blends the Christian message of a divinity working through humans and the trope of cyborgs being constrained: “Let it use you… just let the spirit lead you” (“Ghetto Woman”). The freedom here lies in the idea of an afterlife, which seems to take away from the explicitly political worldly character of Monáe’s story. There is nonetheless a relation of the legal-political struggle to the rebel’s emotional resistance—emotion that takes up spirituality. The human-android continuity Monáe evokes by giving androids spirituality gestures toward the idea that humans themselves are as constrained as androids are by modes of production.

The obverse interpretation of the continuity between androids and humans is a kind of nihilism in which freedom is not intelligible in the first place. In her short film, “Many Moons,” members of the elite bid for Cindi Mayweather, a.k.a., the Alpha Platinum 9000, in a scene that is reminiscent of slave auctions. Lady Maxxa introduces the android: “Who built you? Angels or demons? God or a computer? It’s a simple question, isn’t it? But who cares what the answer is, as long as it’s beautiful?” Monáe here points to a total instrumentalization of both android and human at the point where the marketplace is the only intelligible reality.

Finally, Mayweather is not a figure of transcendent immortality. Instead, her position as a rebel and mediator is grounded in historical political struggles. She upholds spiritual affect without the ahistorical or monolithic thinking that adheres in other AI myths. Rather than depoliticizing or mythologizing technological production, this spirituality sets the android against nihilistic capitalist exploitation.

By Cate May Burton. Cate is an MA student in the Women and Gender Studies Program of Mount St Vincent University and Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS

Works Cited

Lanier, Jaron. “The Myth of AI: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier.” Interview by J. Brockman. Edge, Nov. 14, 2014.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books. 2006.

Monáe, Janelle. Many Moons. Music Video. Youtube. 2007.

— “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). Atlanta: Bad Boy Records, 2007. EP.

Q.U.E.E.N. Music Video. Youtube. 2013.

— “Ghetto Woman.” The Electric Lady. Atlanta: Wondaland Arts Society and Bad Boy Records, 2013. Studio Album.

— “Janelle Monáe Says ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ Is for The ‘Ostracized and Marginalized’.” Fuse TV, Sept. 18 2013.

— “Janelle Monae Answers ‘The Questions’ for OKP TV.” OKP TV, June 2014.

As Teresa Heffernan noted here last week, at the Silicon Valley-based Singularity University, “faith in technology and profit are unwavering, while the world’s problems are understood as great ‘market’ opportunities.” In March 2013, journalist Eric Benson took a weeklong $12,000 course in the Executive Program at the university. Not only was he instructed in the “nearly limitless potential of artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and bioinformatics,” he learned that science fiction, religion and the drive to get rich motivate the university’s teachers and students. Benson’s insightful analysis of his experience, “Sci-Fi, Religion, And Silicon Valley’s Quest For Higher Learning At Singularity University” is posted at BuzzFeed.

Eric Benson/BuzzFeed

Eric Benson/BuzzFeed