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

Dependency diagram (Geek Sublime, pg 111)

By Ellen MacIntosh*

During his presentation at the Cyborg Futures Workshop (March 31-April 1st, 2017), author Vikram Chandra called attention to an issue previously overlooked during the conference: the presence of bugs and ambiguity in computer code. Other speakers expressed concern over the potential repercussions of using inexact language when speaking about artificial intelligence, particularly in terms of society’s tendency to anthropomorphize robots. Chandra spoke about the effects of ambiguity in more practical terms though, drawing attention to the fact that computer code is a form of communication that is especially susceptible to indeterminate language. Capitalizing on his interest in both art, which he showed benefits from vagueness, and science, which works to minimize uncertainty, Chandra explored the dualistic nature of the ambiguous by turning to Sanskrit theorists, who attempted to curtail ambiguity while still recognizing beauty in it.

Vikram Chandra

Chandra spoke first of what he called a programmer’s “dream,” a complete clarity of language, allowing perfect communication between man and machine. This is, as Chandra showed, currently impossible, and failures of this dream spawn both computer errors and the message that programmers dread: “an exception has occurred.” But why should communication between man and machine be more difficult than the already challenging task of conversing with other humans? Even between people, words may have multiple meanings and different words can mean the same thing. Context matters, as does setting. Terms can be used literally or figuratively. In essence, coding is a type of formal language, an intermediary between human language and the zeros and ones through which computers operate. The translation is more susceptible to misunderstanding than human to human communication though. As Chandra succinctly explained, computers are dumb. Sentences that are easily understood by people, such as, “Mary ate the salad with spinach from California for lunch on Tuesday” give a computer a multitude of possible meanings. Without the ability to understand context, figurative language, and other idiosyncrasies of human language, the usual pitfalls of communication only increase when we try to speak to a machine.

PANINI (India – commemorative stamp)

Ancient Indian scholars recognized the danger involved in misunderstood words. Sacred texts were considered the “code of the universe,” and misinterpretation of these codes could have dire consequences, providing incentive to clarify language. In 500 BCE, a man named Panini created the world’s first generative grammar. Its rules, which were applied sequentially, acted like an algorithm. With an infinite number of possible words, the language was precise, yet flexible, formal and unchanging. It appeared perfectly unambiguous. Ambiguities still managed to exist though. Chandra used the sentence, “the sun has set” as his example.  Such a simple sentence seems straightforward, but if spoken from a king to his commanding officer, it could mean that the time has come to launch their attack. If said by a girl waiting for her lover, it could insinuate that the day is done and she still awaits his return. Therefore, while a sentence’s expressed meaning might be obvious, semantics and the power of suggestion can impart uncertainty on the clearest phrases. To counter this ambiguity, scholars developed what Chandra called a “low-level Sanskrit,” a method of writing that specified a precondition, a present state, and the exact means of proceeding from one to the other, similar to the practice of modern coding languages.

While Sanskrit speakers tried to clarify their language, they also recognized beauty in ambiguity through the aforementioned “suggested meaning.” The writing produced through their precise language was exact but dull, resulting in an effort being made to identify what made poetry beautiful. Some Indian scholars suggested it was the incorporation of figurative language, while others believed beauty lay in the style or diction of the verse. Finally, a man named Anandavardhana said that neither denotative nor connotative meaning could account for all the things expressed in a poem. He called the final source of meaning that poets used “suggestion,” and proposed that poetry is made beautiful by the things it does not say. Something as simple as a name can be imbued with enough symbolism and connotation to give multiple meanings at once, which is impossible to do when using words only literally or metaphorically.

Chandra’s talk provided wonderful insight into ambiguity in communication. I appreciated his look at the beauties of ambiguity since it is usually something that is feared in our culture. From coders who want a computer to respond perfectly to their commands, to scientists who meticulously record their experiments to ensure reproducibility, the unknown induces anxiety. Even in Western art, ambiguity often incites unease. A course I took on Romanticism focused heavily on the fear these poets experienced as one of the first groups of writers whose work, thanks to new technology and media forms, would spread beyond their ken or control once released into the world. The anxiety they experienced seems to have focused mainly around an inability to ensure their work was interpreted as intended. Ambiguity could strike, giving phrases unintended meaning, or perhaps turning their words foolish, trite, or offensive. It is always useful to be reminded of the benefits of something one typically tries to avoid, in this case ambiguity, and I appreciated the unique insight that Chandra provided.


*Ellen MacIntosh is a student at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. Her blog post is based on an essay she wrote for English 4556 (Honours Seminar): Animal Life, Social Robots, and Cyborg Futures, taught by Dr. Teresa Heffernan. Ellen was among the students who helped make the Cyborg Futures Workshop a successful event.


 

by Teresa Heffernan

Poster

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.

I-Robot

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

Cyborg Futures Workshop. Join Us!

Posted: March 2, 2017 by keasp1 in Uncategorized

cyborgpostcard-web

From killer robots to sex robots to worker robots to companion robots, the second machine age is here. Join us for a discussion with some of the most fascinating thinkers in the field about how robots and AI will shape the future of labour, war, the environment, and human relationships. This workshop is free and open to the public.

When: March 31 – April 1, 2017     Where: Atrium 101, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS

For information and to register, see our Cyborg Workshop website.

SPEAKERS:

Kathleen Richardson, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

Author: An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines

Director: Campaign Against Sex Robots

Talk: “Property Rights: Sex Robots, Chatbots and the Rights of Machines”

Patrick Crogan, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

Author: Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation and Technoculture

Talk: Killer Robots: Artificial Thought, War and Environment”

Louis Chude-Sokei, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

Author: The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics

Talk: “Race and Robotics: An Uncanny History”

Lucy Suchman, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

Author: Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions

Talk: “Robot Futures: Reflections on Technocultures of Humanlike Machines”

Illah R. Nourbakhsh, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

Author: Robot Futures and Parenting for Technology Futures

Talk: “On the Collision of Robot Ethics and Robot Futures”

John Long, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

Author: Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology

Talk: “Evolution Ain’t Revolution”

Despina Kakoudaki, The American University, Washington, DC

Author: Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema: the Cultural Work of Artificial People

Talk: “The End of a Difference: Robot Narratives for the 21st Century”

Vikram Chandra, University of California, Berkeley, CA

Author: Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty

Talk: “The Pleasures of Ambiguity”