Archive for the ‘Sci Fi’ Category

keasp photo Big Think Nov14,2018The Big Thinking public panel on the social implications of AI, held at the Halifax Public Library on November 14, was a lively and well attended event. The discussants included Teresa Heffernan, Ian Kerr, Fuyuki Kurasawa and Duncan MacIntosh, with Howard Ramos (Dalhousie) as moderator.  Courtney Law provides a sense of the event here, noting for example that Teresa Heffernan “reminded the audience that AI and humans are inextricably linked because AI is built on data created by humans” and that “we sometimes assume ‘fauxtonomy’ when it comes to AI, attributing more complexity to machinery than it is due because we are influenced by fictional representations.” The event was sponsored by Dalhousie University, the Federation of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSHRC), and the Halifax Public Library.

SSHRC has published a video recording of the entire event that you can view below or access here.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Elon Musk’s “SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System”

Genders in Space: Science Fiction, Cyborgs, and Alien Pleasures” was the intriguing name given to one of the panels at a transdisciplinary, public conference hosted last month by the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICI Berlin). The panel speakers, Silvia Casalino, James Burton, and Hania Siebenpfeiffer discussed gender relations in specific off-world sci-fi narratives: The Female Man (J. Russ 1975); Planet of the Apes (film adaptations); and the German novels None of you on Earth (R. Jirgl 2013), and The Future of Mars (G. Klein 2013). As I outline below in a summary of the talks by Casalino and Burton, the speakers’ cross-disciplinary perspectives on the theme illuminated how the category “Man” functions as a law-like principle legitimating gendered, ethno-racist, and planetary-scale exploitation. The session thereby shed a little light on the current fixation among some techno-utopian superstars, notably Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, with “leaving Earth” and colonizing Mars. That escape oriented, Mars-destined discourse follows on the concern that “humanity” needs to be rescued from impending annihilation wrought by “rogue” A.I. super-computers, climate change, and/or other “crises” arising from the pursuit of “progress”. Rather than analyze the societal contradictions producing these existential crises, for techno-utopians such as Hawking and Musk, the solution lies in advancing more of the same. Consider this recent statement by Hawking: “When we have reached similar [existential] crises there has usually been somewhere else to colonize … But there is no new world, no utopia around the corner” […] “We are running out of space, and the only places to go to are other worlds” (quoted in Barclay 2017). To this I want to respond, “citizens of Mars beware: bipedal marauders are coming to take your land and enslave your people because ‘humanity’ is ‘running out of space’ on Earth!” The ICI Berlin session on “Genders in Space” illuminated the hegemonic presupposition of a certain “we” — “humanity,” “Man” – for the sake of whom progress must be pursued across the galaxy.

Siliva Casalino, “No Gravity” (2013)

Silvia Casalino is an aeronautical engineer in the European “space industry,” one whose lifelong dream was to become an astronaut. Her discussion of the classic feminist sci-fi novel, The Female Man, turned out to be the entry point for explaining how, as a queer scientist/space dreamer in what I’ll call the space-Man industry, she came to make the documentary film, No Gravity (2013). The film was screened after the panel so my comments here are based on Casalino’s brief talk and my first impression of her fascinating documentary. The catalyst for Casalino’s story was her 21st Century personal encounter with the “glass ceiling”– the architectonic ceiling, the vault of the sky, beyond which few women have travelled regardless of their qualifications for gravity-free exploits. The law-like principle of Man, one might say, operates as a countervailing force on women in the ostensibly gravity-busting business of the space-Man industry.

The idea for the documentary arose from the nadir of career disappointment, and drew on the work of feminist/scientist Donna Haraway (featured in the documentary) for inspiration and guidance. Casalino set out to connect her (broken) childhood dream to the Cold War origins of the space industry, and the stories of those women who strove to be among the “first in space.” As suggested by the structure of The Female Man, Casalino’s documentary revealed parallel realities for women-in-space. Most pointedly, while the USSR ventured to send women into space early on, the US NASA program excluded that possibility for two decades, even though a group of American women passed the physical tests in 1959 (see the story of the “Mercury 13”).  Hence the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova bears the honorific of “first woman in space,” solo-piloting the Vostok 6 in 1963 (two years after Yuri Gagarin became the primal space-Man). In contrast, the first American, Sally Ride, gained orbit in 1983, while the first non-Russian European, France’s Claudie Haigneré, flew just 21 years ago, in 1996. Casalino’s juxtaposition of the Soviet, American and Western European space initiatives thus exposed a gender-based dogmatic exceptionalism structuring the then “Free World’s” pursuit of progress.

October 25, 1963 issue of LIFE magazine: “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier”

Yet the film’s portrayal of spatio-temporal variations in female astronaut’s experiences over the past 50+ years raised more questions than it answered, at least for those like me who are unfamiliar with the history of space travel. The emancipatory promise that emanated from the “first woman in space” story turns out to have been transitory, at best a utopic flash. To date, women comprise just 13% of human space travelers (60 of 556), and only four women from the Soviet/post-Soviet Russian program have left Earth. The US space program has sent the majority of astronauts into space (60%), and despite not being “first,” it has sent the majority of women (45 of 60) into orbit. The issue of Cold-War manufacture (west and east) of space-travel imaginaries thus haunts the framing of “first” and casts doubt on the originariness of gendered claims to “space.” Casalino’s film suggests that her own career ambitions were composed, in part, from fragments of Cold War ideology, fragments that only came to appear as myth when the realization of her dream was shattered. In this light, the recent news that 50% of NASA’s 2016 class of astronauts are women (and supposedly heading to Mars) is a complicated, and by no means assured, triumph.

For those familiar with Donna Haraway’s work, shifting from Casalino’s reflections on women-in-space to James Burton’s analysis of the Planet of the Apes movie franchise would be no great hardship.  First because Haraway carved a path for critical cultural analysis on scientific and popular representations of animals, notably regarding primates (monkeys, apes). Her book, Primate Visions (1990) defined primatology as the science par excellence for prosecuting capitalism’s war against biological natures — a knowledge/power that operates through the discursive production of the simian Other. Moreover, her figure of the bio-technical amalgam called the “Cyborg” sheds light on the conditions of possibility for space travel by terrestrial organisms: not only the possibility for “HAM” the first chimpanzee-astronaut, but equally for Valentina and Sally, among other “first” humans. No wonder, perhaps, that Eric Greene (1998) draws on Primate Visions in his influential book Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture.

Planet of the Apes (1968) – Statue of Liberty scene

With all of this for background, it thus was striking that Burton, author of The Philosophy of Science Fiction (2015), did not pick up the Haraway thread for his analysis. Instead, he took issue with the prevalent interpretive thesis for the Apes films, in which these stories are viewed as a critical “allegory” on race and gender relations. Briefly, in the first of the original five-film series, released in 1968, a 20th-Century crew of US astronauts travels for hundreds of Earth-years to a distant planet. The planet turns out to be ruled by an intelligent species of ape, which have subjugated a human population now regressed to unmanly mute acquiescence. The crux of the film occurs when the protagonist, played by Charlton Heston, sees a broken piece of the Statue of Liberty lying in the sand, thus realizing that the planet he had ventured to was actually a post-apocalyptical Earth.  The “reversal” of the human and ape relations of power in a dystopian future America is the basis for viewing the film as a sharp commentary on race and gender relations during the Cold War, according to Burton. But this criticality, he maintained, is only a surface effect, a performance built into the story which gives it a sense of critical potential that is not borne out in the narrative.

Indeed, he argued that the film was not designed to stimulate progressive reflection on the state of society. To the contrary, he considered it to be one of a host of films produced since the 1960s in reaction to the new social movements. These films, which he grouped under the heading “criti-tainment,” present as progressive, yet they serve to re-entrench the hegemonic metaphysics of gender and race-based power, represented through the category “Man.” Rather than turn to Haraway, Burton drew on Jamaican essayist and scholar Sylvia Wynter, referencing her essay, “Unsettling the Colonality of Being/Truth/Power/Freedom: Towards the Human After Man, It’s Overrepresentation—An Argument” (Wynter 2003). Following that argument, according to Burton, the first real societal attack on the ruling “ethno-class” represented by the category “Man” comes during the 1960s; however, those activist movements were and continue to be re-absorbed by the dominant institutions. “Criti-tainment” is thus a mechanism for hegemonic re-absorption. Burton argued that numerous contemporary film and TV productions perform this hegemonic function, such as Ex Machina, Gravity, Arrival, Wonder Woman, and Amazon TV’s portrayal of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle.

Planet of the Apes (1968) – Opening Scene

As proof, Burton highlighted aspects of gender relations in the Planet of the Apes films. In the first scene of the first film, as the spaceship approaches the unknown planet, the captain engages in a monologue while his crew sleep. One of the crew, we learn, is a woman, the only woman. But she dies during the landing. While most commentators construe her elimination, according to Burton, as run-of-the-mill 1960s sexism, he implied that it was an intentional, aggressive, re-assertion of the representation of male dominance in the context of an emergent feminism. Moreover, Burton maintained that the roles for female ape characters in the most recent “reboot,” Dawn of the Planet of Apes (2014), were diminished relative to the original film, a diminishment corresponding to the representation of ape family structure in terms of a nuclear, stay-at-home Mom model. That’s not an accidental projection, on Burton’s account, but a strategic re-entrenchment of the “ethno-class” that calls itself “Man.”

People of Mars beware!

By Karen Asp

 

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