Archive for the ‘Rights’ Category

by Teresa Heffernan


We had a wonderful group of international and interdisciplinary speakers at Saint Mary’s University on March 31/April 1, 2017. They all took time out from their very busy schedules to come to Halifax to discuss robots and artificial intelligence at the Cyborg Futures Workshop. Academics from literary theory, digital culture, anthropology, sociology, environmental studies, robotics, and evolutionary biology, along with students and the public, convened for a lively discussion about technologies that are impacting us all. This workshop is part of a larger SSHRC-funded project–Where Science Meets Fiction: Social Robots and the Ethical Imagination–that is about shifting the conversation about robots and AI, which has been animated by fiction but dominated in the real world by the military and industry. Opening the discussion up to wider social and cultural contexts–from the impact of technology on human relations; to non-human animals, the environment and trash; to racism, imperialism and misogyny; to automation, labour and capitalism; to killer robots and the military; to the problematic collapse of science and fiction—this workshop considered both the infrastructure currently being laid that is forcing us down a troubling path and imaginative alternatives to it.  What follows cannot possibly do justice to the richness and complexity of the talks, so please click on the hyperlinks to listen to them.

1. Born in Fiction: Robots, Artificial People, and Animate Machines

Mr. Rastus Robot (Paleofuture)

The term robot was popularized in the 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The mass produced and servile humanoid machines in the play rise up against their masters and overthrow them. The play is about the anxieties of industrialization, technological change, and the mechanization and exploitation of human labour. Yet as the literary theorist Louis Chude-Sokei argues, the anxieties expressed in these fictional works about robots were framed by nineteenth-century discourses about race that linked blacks to machines. Questions about whether machines could think, whether they could feel, whether they had souls, whether they were worthy of rights, whether they would revolt–were all thoroughly steeped in the legacy of colonialism, racial coding and slavery. From Mr. Rastus Robot, “the most lifelike of mechanical men,” built by Westinghouse in the 30s to Norbert Wiener’s work in cybernetics–the industry also explicitly borrowed from the material histories of blacks, who were positioned as the prosthetic extensions of white masters. The history of technology and industrialization, Chude-Sokei, contends is haunted by colonialism and racism.


Despina Kakoudaki examines the ways in which robots, androids, cyborgs, and automata are constructed in relation to people in literature, film, and popular culture. Attentive to the gap between current technological innovations and the fantasies and desires that give rise to “unreal” artificial people, she suggests that even the most contemporary versions of them are informed by ancient tropes that perform the cultural work of elucidating and negotiating what it is to be human. Rather than understanding artificial people (whether real or fictional: Frankenstein, Electro, ASIMO, etc.) only in terms of an impending robot future, she argues that they have been the constant and long-standing companions of humans. In other words, her poetics of robots counters the prevalent readings of artificial people as continuous with developments in science and instead offers innovative readings of them as always having been part of an imaginative landscape. Her encyclopedic review of artificial people–from ancient stories to origin myths to Aristotle’s theories of animation to Frankenstein to Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica to Ex Machina—exposes the plot lines and tropes that persist in the depictions of artificial births, mechanical and enslaved bodies, and angst about authenticity. Yet whether the artificial person is imagined as other or as passing, as subjugated or rebellious, as having some level of consciousness or agency or not, the representations also speak to the particular cultural moment in which these fictions are conceived.

Kismet (MIT News 2007)

Lucy Suchman argues that we should be wary of the fiction of “autonomous” robotics and artificial intelligence that replicates the myth of the liberal human subject. So often robots are presented as spectacular and “life-like,” a technology that seems to operate miraculously and seamlessly on its own. Yet what gets erased from the picture in promotional videos and media clips of celebrity machines–from Deep Blue to Kog to Kismet–is the enormous infrastructure that enables these systems to function, which includes the many human “appendages” needed for them to operate. The oft-cited Turing Test is typically described as the point at which a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence is deemed equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of a human. The evaluator in the test is aware that one of the two “invisible” partners in this conversation is a machine, and thus asks questions in order to determine the human from the machine. But what is so often left out of this description, Suchman reminds us, is the initial design of this test, which involved a man and a woman and an evaluator, with the man trying to confuse or trick the evaluator into thinking he is a woman and the woman supporting the evaluator by insisting she is the woman. The bodies are hidden from the evaluator in the course of this performance, but gendered assumptions (such as questions about hair length) all point to embodiment. When the machine takes the part of the man, however, the material body is abstracted and rendered invisible. As various narrations about AI and robotics encourage slippages between humans and machines and between the environment and the lab, Suchman argues we need to be attentive to this magic act that hides not only the enabling props but also the cultural and historical specificities of the technology.

Teresa Heffernan’s complete summary of the workshop can be found here. It includes:

1. Born in Fiction: Robots, Artificial People, and Animate Machines

2. Sex, War and Work: Machine-Human Relationships in the Twenty-First Century

3. The Singularity: Capitalism, Ancient Cultures, and Evolution

4. Some Concluding Remarks