3: Manufacturing and Encountering “Human” in the Age of Digital Reproduction
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49 3 Manufacturing and Encountering “Human” in the Age of Digital Reproduction Matthew Bernius As president, I believe that robotics can inspire young people to pursue science and engineering. And I also want to keep an eye on those robots in case they try anything. US President Barack Obama (October 23, 2009), speaking to students in Washington, DC, as part of an event kicking off a science education initiative I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. Kenneth Jennings (broadcast February 14, 2011), using a reference from The Simpsons to poke fun at his imminent loss to Watson, an artificial intelligence system built by IBM, in a special two-game, combined-point match on the television game show Jeopardy There is little question that Jennings and President Obama had their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks when they made these remarks. The two jokes play upon a time-honored cultural meme: the more intelligent—or perhaps “human”—the machine, the more likely it is to threaten its creators. In the past, these types of references were largely restricted to what we might call “geek DOI: 10.5876/9781607321705.c03 50 Matthew Bernius culture.” Today, such references are becoming more and more mainstream, reflecting how our day-to-day lives are becoming increasingly intertwined with various forms of artificial intelligence (AI). From the “smart” algorithms that power Internet search engines, to the unmanned drone aircraft deployed by the military, to the GPS devices that direct us to destinations through vocal and graphic commands, more and more specialized tasks are performed by machines or through humans partnering with “smart machines.” And though there are no signs we have to worry about a “robot apocalypse ”—at least not any time soon—there is a need to better understand the broader social implications of our increasing reliance upon AIs. This chapter explores approaches for studying and theorizing the complex and shifting relationships formed between humans and AI systems. I begin with a brief discussion of why many past efforts have focused on maintaining clear boundaries between human and machines. I then discuss how a “cyborg” approach, which blurs those boundaries, enables a different perspective on human/AI interactions. Using data collected in an ethnographic study of chatbots, I show how using the framework of “cyborg anthropology” helps us to uncover how humans and AIs work together to reinforce various cultural ideologies. Finally, I consider the potential limitations of a cyborg approach and how Donna Haraway’s concepts of “companion species” and “encounter value” provide exciting possibilities for new understandings of human/AI interactions. Human or Machine Historically speaking, popular and academic writings1 about the cultural implications of AIs have primarily dealt with definitions of the boundary between human and machine. Historian of science Jessica Riskin argues that, in the West, these two cultural categories have long stood in opposition to each other, with each defining and being defined by the limitations of the other (Riskin 2003). For a quality or action to be human, it cannot be replicated by a machine. Major technical advances in the capability of machines to replicate something considered human, in turn, shift our understandings of what it means to be human. For example, it was long believed that because the game of chess involved both mastery of logic and the ability to psychologically engage an opponent, it represented a pinnacle of human intelligence.2 Once AIs began to beat grandmasters, chess was redefined as game in which success “can be reduced to a matter of brute force computation” (Hafner 2002).3 Today’s AI developers now agree that because of the role intuition plays in the game, creating “a strong Go program will teach us more about making computers think like people than writing a strong chess program”4 (ibid.). 51 Manufacturing and Encountering “Human” in the Age of Digital Reproduction Although this shift from defining human intelligence in terms of the ability to use logic to defining it by the possession of intuition might seem trivial, it has important cultural implications. First, it demonstrates how Western cultures work to maintain clear boundaries between our cultural understandings of human and machine. A significant amount of science fiction is built on the profound discomfort that arises when one can no longer tell the difference between the two. Sigmund Freud argued that the root of this feeling of dread, which he termed “the uncanny,”5 runs far deeper than simply being confronted by something one cannot be sure is human. He...