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Cyborg Futures: Where Science Meets Fiction

As we head toward a post-human future, there are many ethical questions to consider. One proponent of interdisciplinary conversations around technology is Dr. Teresa Heffernan (Professor of English, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax), who has organized the Cyborg Futures Workshop, happening in Halifax this weekend.

RECURSOR: What motivated you to start a conversation between science and other disciplines? Where do you see science and fiction colliding?

Teresa Heffernan Cyborg Futures Workshop via Recursor.TV

Heffernan with Pepper the robot

HEFFERNAN:  Fiction often gets mobilized in the tech world as, “This is our future; this is fiction becoming fact.” Robotics and artificial intelligence has mostly been directed by computer scientists and engineers (not other disciplines). Yet it has an impact on everyone’s lives, so ethics in robotics and A.I. needs to be opened up for discussion. I think that so far, the discussion has been naive. A lot of the naïveté comes from this automatic idea that because something happened in fiction, now it must happen in science.

Why draw on literature to discuss ethics in artificial intelligence and robotics?

There has been a long history of artificial people (in fictional works). You can go back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion and other myths, that have raised questions since the beginning of literature about what it means to be human. In a sense, science is also an imaginative realm that opens up lots of questions.

You’ve invited stellar speakers from a variety of disciplines —Vikram Chandra, Louis Chude-Sokei, John Long, Illah R. Nourbakhsh and others. How did you decide who to invite?

I know all of their work, so I know they’re all capable of thinking outside their particular disciplines; they’re all ideas people.

Vikram Chandra Geek Sublime via Recursor.TV

Vikram Chandra

Vikram Chandra (Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty) learns a new computer program every year, and he has worked as a computer programmer. Because he’s also a novelist, he talks about the difference between creative writing and coding. Louis Chude-Sokei (The Sound of Culture) talks about the history of race in technology. Within the tech world, because it’s dominated still by (mostly white) men, there are all sorts of biases that go into that.

Illah Nourbakhsh Robot Futures via Recursor.TV

Illah Nourbakhsh

John Long (Darwin’s Devices) is an evolutionary biologist who speaks to the differences between the way biological evolution actually works and the way that evolution is being claimed by a lot of people in the tech industry. Illah Nourbakhsh (Robot Futures) is a roboticist who imagines fictional scenarios based on the state of the science. He’s worried about the direction that robotics is taking, and the concentration of capital with certain companies.

What are some ethical questions that should be discussed in relation to technology?

Scene still from A.I., Warner Brothers via Recursor.TV

Scene still from A.I., Warner Brothers

Let’s start with the debates about robot rights. It’s there, for instance, in Spielberg’s A.I. — references to slavery, the Holocaust, witch burning — it’s framed in the context of rights. And many people talk about granting rights to robots in relationship to the rights we grant to animals. But species are disappearing at a rapid rate, while robots are multiplying at a rapid rate. Are we going to ignore the fact that we’re dependent on that whole ecological biological system that is being rapidly wiped out?

Another area is immortality. You can go back to Gilgamesh, which was written over 6,000 years ago. This sense that we’ll all become immortal has always been the promise from the beginning of literature. What we get all the time is, “Technology is already expanding our lives.” Yet if you look back to ancient Greece, there’s not a lot of difference between the ages people lived to then and the ages we live to now. So, is it?

Tech waste, photo: Basal Action Network, NPR via Recursor.TV

Photo: Basal Action Network, NPR

Another area to discuss is technology and the environment. You have this robot that’s sold as your companion, and then it breaks down or you get the new model. Do you just put the old one out on the curb? What do we do with it? Is it recyclable?

How do these questions affect the science fiction we read and see on film?

Hollywood will invite scientists in and talk about getting the science right. But what does it mean to get the science right? You’ve probably seen Ex Machina. It depicts a very linear model of evolution (from humans to AI). But if you talk to evolutionary biologists, they’ll say that’s religion. That’s not an evolutionary model, because an evolutionary model is much more like a web or a tree. It’s not linear.

The idea that robots can be companions to humans — helpers, nurses, even sex partners — is a large driver of the work in A.I and robotics. How does that enter into the conversation?

Sherry Turkle, who wrote Alone Together, was on the cover of Wired in 1996 talking about how the Internet was going to bring us all together. Then she started to notice that the technology is creating a great deal of alienation amongst people. It leaves us more isolated and alone.

RoBoHon, photo credit SocialRobotFutures.com via Recursor.TV

RoBoHon, photo credit SocialRobotFutures.com

Now we see social robots like Pepper and Jibo.They’re a kind of solution to people’s loneliness. In Japan, they have a robot called RoBoHon. It is designed to be the cutest little thing; it breaks into dances and has a cute high voice, big eyes, and all these ways to entice you.

But when you think about it, that’s a machine. It’s costing you huge amounts of money. You have to have the huge data plan and the insurance plan, and on top of it, it’s mining everything about you. All that mining of your information is making companies richer and richer.

What do you hope to see as the result of this workshop?

I would definitely like to see more of these interdisciplinary conferences happening. When it gets to the questions of public policy and ethical questions, this kind of collapsing of science and fiction is problematic. A better understanding of how these different disciplines operate is a good and useful conversation to have.

How can people participate in the workshop?

The Cyborg Futures Workshop happens March 31 – April 1, 2017. It is open to the public, and those interested can attend free in person at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, or livestream it at cyborgworkshop.com.

Dr. Teresa Heffernan is Professor of English at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and author of Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth-Century Novel. Her current project is Social Robot Futures, which explores the ethical and existential questions that emerge from the entanglement of the science and the fiction of robotics/AI.

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