- Considering Automation; or, The Origin of Technologically Derived Ethnicities
The logical outcome of automation results in technologically derived ethnicities, or at least the fear of this possibility, where new race paradigms will supersede the old ones while allowing racism to renew itself. Artificial intelligence, robots, and cyborgs are just over the horizon. These beings are faster than us; stronger than us; smarter than us; more durable than us. How will we interact with our technological offspring? Will they occupy new ethnic positions? Are they dangerous or liberating? How do we confront our own anxieties about human specificity? Is there even room for us if flesh no longer seems to matter? Even if racial identity were to disappear in the future, artificial people "will only have membership in the human pantheon if they are racialized."1 Machine otherness paradoxically equates to racial otherness, only this forced and exploited labor group is never humanized enough to be dehumanized.
Ready or not, artificial peoples are coming—and automation signals their arrival. Fortunately, science fiction already forecasts and reflects upon the emergence of these technologically derived ethnicities.
Automation reduces human activity as our mechanical devices continuously operate on their own with minimal assistance from human operators—we merely stroke a few keys on a glowing keyboard or speak into a built-in microphone. The technique of minimizing human involvement as much as possible steers us further down the path to artificial intelligence, but it also creates a growing class of displaced and expendable workers. Imagine how such workers might feel when a conscious robot (or algorithm) arrives to take her or his job—resentful, anxious, hostile. It's already happening, of course: a McDonald's Happy Meal can now be ordered and paid for with the push of a button and the swipe of card without the need of a low-paid cashier. These human workers have become obsolete, made [End Page 300] redundant by intelligent machines, and will not have a chance at meaningful employment. Won't this displacement resurrect an old paradigm: they are coming for our jobs? Racism. I am talking about ascribing racial difference to thinking machines. To be clear: this job theft used to be attributed to people of color and immigrants rather than to the profiteering of corporations.
Recombining man and machine, merging them together in a transhuman fusion, would certainly change the meaning of ethnic relations as we evolve along with our technology. In The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil discusses how the accelerating returns in computing power is leading us to the singularity. He suggests that breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence will result in "future machines [that] will be human, even if they are not biological."2 So it stands to reason that such human machines will experience complex emotions as they grapple with the masses of humanity dissimilar to them. And we, in turn, will utopically become these new hybrid beings, these artificial persons, these technologically derived ethnicities as our attitudes and anxieties concerning race and ethnicity—mostly fear—are transplanted. But the human tendency presumes that the hybrid is an alien "other" and thus repurposes racist logics. In this respect, an artificial intelligence, thought to be doing its job in helping us, its flesh progenitor, would be extremely dangerous as it always learns more about us by observing and recording our interactions, our values, our cultures, and perhaps controlling information flows as it surpasses our own limitations. We would seek any excuse to destroy it in our growing fear when we learned what it was doing, and our machine offspring would be retrofit with old familiar racial paradigms, thus dooming us to repeat dangerous games with our artificial brethren.3
In the process of becoming other kinds of human, our most powerful tools—computers—help usher in the end of prevailing notions of humanity, or what Scott Bukatman calls "terminal flesh," leading instead to "lifestyles of the electronically enhanced."4 Automation, by this logic, precedes the posthuman. Scholars and thinkers tend to celebrate this shift, insofar as it purports to reduce the historical ballast of humanism—including racism, sexism, imperialism, among other trappings...