Archive for the ‘Singularity’ Category

Saint Mary’s University English prof Teresa Heffernan teamed up with Paul Abela of the Department of Philosophy, Acadia University, to argue for the “con” side in a policy debate last month on the implications of AI and robots for the future of society. While the pro v. con structure was simplistic, it generated a dynamic conversation on “grounds for optimism” compared to “concerns about what the future will bring.”

Dr. Heffernan argued that, “the massive industry and military investment driving this technology has already rendered a ‘con’ position irrelevant. There is no stopping it. All we can hope for is some sane regulation, more transparency, more education, less hype, and more voices in what’s been largely an unregulated field.” Acknowledging the optimism that characterized the early days of the internet, she outlined a range of negative impacts and risks indicative of the complex problems and disappointments of the new reality of social media and the “4th industrial revolution”. She concluded with the injunction that, “we cannot look to technology to solve our problems. We don’t need more engineers attempting to manufacture life for profit, we need more humans thinking creatively about how to share this planet with other complex lifeforms on which we all depend.”

The debate was hosted by Acadia University, with Ian Wilks (Acadia) serving as moderator. The “pro” side was represented by Danny Silver, Jodrey School of Computer Science, Director, Acadia Institute for Data Analytics, Acadia University, and Stan Matwin, Faculty of Computer Science, and Director of Big Data Analytics at Dalhousie University. Congratulations to Acadia University for hosting this fine event.

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

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

The Singularity University, founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil and located in Silicon Valley, brands itself as about “Science. Technology. The Future of Humanity.” This for-profit uncredited institution offers opportunities such as: 7-day workshops for executives and entrepreneurs (US $12,000); a 10-week Graduate Studies Program (US $29,500); and events like the 2-day conference at NYU that focuses on how new technologies are impacting finance (VIP tickets are US $10,000; general admission is US$ 5,000; and a special rate that students can apply for is US $2,500). Corporate sponsors include, Google, the Kauffman Foundation, and ePlanet Capital. Who is envisioning the “future of humanity”? The prices are already exclusionary; the core faculty and chairs listed on the university website are dominated by greying white men; and the faith in technology and profit are unwavering, while the world’s problems are understood as great “market” opportunities (

The university’s mandate is to teach people “to utilize accelerating technologies to address humanity’s hardest problems.” Humanity’s “problems” are never with humans themselves their slogan suggests: poverty, depression, social inequity, colonialism, genocide, famine, climate change, pollution, trash, water scarcity, dying oceans, superbugs, disappearing species—can all be solved by innovative technology. The dark sides of science and technology are swept under the carpet as the seductive mantra of endless progress is trumpeted. This problematic strategy is brilliantly captured in the opening of Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon that begins with an advertisement for “Lunar Industries.”


The promise of a world-healing technology is mixed with images of sparking lakes, smiling racially diverse children and women, elephants roaming the savannah, a comforting voice and a soothing soundtrack. The advertisement then gives way to the reality of a business that has capitalized on the oil crisis and has established a mine on the moon to extract helium-3 and send it back to earth—a new technology that addresses the problems of an old one. On the desolate moon-scape, Sam, the man who operates the system and longs to return home to his wife and family, discovers that he is one of many short-lived replaceable clones with implanted memories of a family and is slated to be incinerated at the end of his contract in order to save the company the hassle and expense of sending new workers to the moon. While Sam blindly serves technology in the name of the future for humanity, he realizes he in turn has been enslaved.

Despite its declared interest in “humanity,” the Singularity University offers no courses in the humanities and human culture…nothing, for instance, on literature, language, gender studies, history, art, music, cultural studies, race studies, post colonialism or philosophy. Catapulting us into a shiny, bright future full of instant fixes, the complicated terrain of ethics and fiction is cast aside in favour of the truth and practicality of science harnessed to corporate interests. Reminiscent of nineteenth-century utopian dreams about technology, the Singularity University operates as if the horrors of the twentieth century—machine guns, gulags, gas ovens, atomic bombs, death camps, all designed by engineers and scientists and built by “reputable” companies—never happened. As if the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb and who lived to witness Hiroshima and Nagasaki never had a moments regret even as Oppenheimer lamented in an address to the American Philosophical Society: “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world … a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing … we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.”

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.”His friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, responded with his spirited “A Defence of Poetry” in 1821. He 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.”

As profit, innovation, and technology (or the new educational push for STEM programs: Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) are once again offered as short-term solutions to our world at the expense of the long traditions of the humanities, Shelley’s “Defence” might serve as a useful reminder of the limits of this approach. 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 spontaneous global demonstrations and brutal state suppression of them (from Cairo to Istanbul to London to New York City to Athens), the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the disregard for the planet and fellow species; the cultivation of an ethical imagination that Shelley promoted at the outset of the industrial revolution seems newly urgent. Rather than manically throwing expensive newer “exponential” technology at older technology in a desperate attempt to deal with the many problems it produced—we need to rethink our relationship to the future of humanity.

By Teresa Heffernan