Eco-Sci-Fi Art and Interspecies Technology

By Stephanie Moran. This article was first published in Vector 292.

Since at least the beginnings of industrialism, technological innovation has incorporated attributes of animal perception and behaviour. More recently, this process has been recursively intensifying, in a process of ‘the biologisation of computer technology and the computerization of biology’ (Vehlken, 2019). Technologies inspired by nature deepen our understanding of natural systems, in turn fostering new technological developments: from the development of behavioural biology around 1900, through the use of media technology in biological research and the acceleration of bio-technoscience in the 1970s, to the use of simulation modelling and then computational-intensive modelling beginning in the 1980s, and most recently the rise of Machine Learning methodologies in Artificial Intelligence. Now studies of birdsong inform voice recognition software such as Siri and Alexa, while billionaire sci-fi fan Elon Musk is funding research into neural interfaces with the brains of mice and pigs.

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Freeing art from the human artist: Hod Lipson speaks to Fiona Moore about AI and creativity

Interview with Hod Lipson

By Fiona Moore

Artist: Pix18, a robot ‘that conceives and creates art on its very own.’ Oil on Canvas. (Image source: http://www.pix18.com)

Hod Lipson is a professor of Engineering and Data Science at Columbia University in New York. With Melba Kurman he is co-author the award-winning Fabricated: The New World of 3D printing and Driverless: Intelligent cars and the road ahead. His often provocative work on self-aware and self-replicating robots has been influential across academia, industry, policy, and public discourse more generally (including this very popular TED talk), and his interests also encompass pioneering in the fields of open-source 3D printing, electronics 3D printing, bio-printing and food printing. Hod directs the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia, where they “build robots that do what you’d least expect robots to do.”

Fiona Moore is a writer and academic whose work, mostly involving self-driving cars and intelligent technology, has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Interzone and many other publications, with reprints in Forever Magazine and two consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. Her story “Jolene” was shortlisted for the 2019 BSFA Award for Shorter Fiction. Her publications include one novel, Driving Ambition, numerous articles and guidebooks on cult television, guidebooks to Blake’s Seven, The Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, three stage plays and four audio plays. When not writing, she is a Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London.

You are a celebrated figure in the world of artificial intelligence research. Can you tell me how you came to be interested in, and working in, this area?

Thanks. To me, issues like self-awareness, creativity, and sentience are the essence of being human, and understanding them is one of life’s big mysteries – on par with questions like the origin of life and of the universe. There are also many practical reasons to understand and replicate such abilities (like making autonomous machines more resilient to failure). I think that we roboticists are perhaps not unlike ancient alchemists, trying to breathe life into matter. That’s what brings me to this challenge.

My own interest in AI is, in part, as an anthropologist, looking at culture. To what extent will AI “learn” culture, at least initially, from humans, and to what extent do you see them as capable of developing culture on their own?

Yes, AIs learn culture (for better and worse) from humans and from a human-controlled world; but as AIs become more autonomous, they will gather their own data, and develop their own norms, perspectives, and biases.

Do you see this already happening? If so, what do AI cultures look like at present?

AIs today are still like children, and their cultures are heavily controlled by us humans– their “parents.” For example, AIs that generate music are influenced by existing human music genres; AI’s that generate human portraits are influenced by images of humans they find on the web – disproportionately favouring certain aesthetics, genders, and ethnicities, etc. AIs that generate text are influenced by prose that they are trained on, and so forth.

I have not seen AIs that have full autonomy on the data they consume, but this will eventually happen as artificial intelligence becomes more physically autonomous and can collect its own data. But again, we humans are also increasingly subjected to an information diet that is prescribed by the culture we live in, and we have to make a conscious effort to rise above our culture or go against it. 

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Political pragmatism and utopian anticipation: A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Thomas Connolly reviews Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (London: Verso, 2019), x + 278 pp, ISBN 978-1-78663-262-3.

9781786632623The term “fully automated luxury communism” (or FALC) first began circulating among far-left internet commentators in the mid-2010s as a name given to one potential form of post-scarcity economy. Alongside a number of variations (such as “fully automated luxury gay space communism”, or FALGSC, which inflects the term with post-gender and post-sexuality connotations),

FALC gained wider recognition following a Guardian write-up in March 2015 that discussed the origins and significance of the term. Aaron Bastani—a British political commentator and co-founder of Novaro Media, an independent left-wing media outlet—was interviewed as part of that article, and has since become the key intellectual figure associated with FALC. The current work is Bastani’s attempt to unpack the meaning and implications of FALC.

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Surveillance Capitalism and the Data/Flesh Worker in Malka Older’s Infomocracy

This academic article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Esko Suoranta

The cyberpunk dystopia is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Western democracies appear to be in crisis. Populist nationalisms are on the rise, while an ever-so-free market tightens its grip on our everyday existence, building vast private siloes of personal data. Climate change is spurred on by the rise of new imaginary currencies, mined from pure mathematics and pumping tens of millions of tons of carbon into the sky. Technologies from space travel to nanotechnology take unprecedented leaps. Meanwhile, in fiction, nostalgia appears to be a prime directive. The imagined futures of the 198090s receive reboots which appropriate the aesthetics of the past, but often fail to update its politics in the process: see Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ghost in the Shell (2017). Against such future-washed conservatism, a counter-project is also emerging. Critics and authors like Monika Bielskyte and Nnedi Okorafor sound the clarion for new ways to imagine the future, and to pave the path for a more equal and sustainable world.[1]

Infomocracy

In this context, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy (2016) explores progressive political and economic alternatives in a near-future setting. Part political techno-thriller, part thought-experiment on global micro-democracy, the novel follows four protagonists in the 22nd century as the third global elections loom. In the micro-democratic system, each geographic “centenal,” a unit of 100,000 people, chooses their representatives from a myriad of parties ranging from PhillipMorris and Liberty, to Earth1st and YouGov. Nation states have practically disappeared and the global election process is governed by Information, a descendant of the internet giants of yore, seemingly fused with something like the United Nations. The organization strives for neutral and truthful management of information and a fair administration of the micro-democratic process.

Predictably, political rivals try to play the system for their own benefit, and much of the plot revolves around such schemes. Through their twists and turns, Older highlights the precariousness of information labor in highly networked societies as workers become interfaces of bodies and computer networks, producing a distributed subjectivity. These themes become clear through an analysis of Older’s treatment of her protagonists and her depiction of Information’s custodianship of networked data. Infomocracy conducts an optimistic thought-experiment on the future of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” I aim to show how, for Older, there are two keys to diverting surveillance capitalism in a more optimistic direction. First, the democratization of skills related to information work. Second, the not-for-profit management of data.

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Intelligent Futures: Automation, AI and Cognitive Ecologies

Maisie Ridgway reports on Intelligent Futures, an academic conference on the theme of AI, held recently at the University of Sussex. This post originally appeared on the Sussex Humanities Lab blog.

Intelligent Futures was a postgraduate and ECR conference, supported by CHASE DTP and Sussex Humanities Lab. Over the course of two days, the conference challenged researchers to find original, philosophical and cultural approaches to Artificial Intelligence. The interdisciplinary explorations spanned the social sciences, informatics, psychology, art, literature and more, promoting critical and speculative engagements with technical cognition.

Thomas Nyckel of the Technical University Braunschweig led the first panel, which sought to engage with AI from a philosophical standpoint. Nyckel’s paper fostered an alternative approach for understanding the processes of digital devices and computation through the variable definitions of the ‘rule of thumb’. Nyckel’s identified two categorisations of the rule of thumb – Frederick Taylor’s conception, concerned with exact scientific results, and Alan Turing’s interest in approximate computational methodologies. What materialised was a synthesis of ideas that challenged the nature and myth of scientific exactitude and complicated the binary of workman and machine, or the approximate rule of thumb and exact scientific methods. Mattia Paganelli followed Nyckel with a paper on the misnomer of ‘artificial’ when speaking of non‑human intelligence. Paganelli argued that the term shored up the binary between subject and object by attributing an a priori definition of the perimeter of possibility for a given system. Rather than artificial, Paganelli suggested the term ‘thinking machines’, understanding intelligence as a process of learning, plasticity and openness to name a few key attributes.

The next panel united speakers under the common theme of ethics. Camilla Elphick of the University of Sussex spoke about her ongoing project to develop an AI chatbot, named Spot, as a means by which victims of work place sexual harassment can report their experiences. Spot’s distinctly unhuman style of engagement meant that victims did not feel embarrassed, judged, scrutinised or pressured, garnering more accurate information. On an entirely different note, Marek Iwaniak’s paper explored how theologies and pre-technological religious imaginaries could engage with the novel challenge of AI. Iwaniak speculated on possible intersections between various religions and AI such as a Buddhist approach to technical cognition whereby the ultimate aim of developers could be an AI consciousness of pure bliss.

The final panel of the day explored changing ideas of writing, asking whether an anthropocentric conception of literary creativity obscured other forms of nonhuman creative generativity from view. John Phelan of the Open University investigated if AI could ever critically appreciate poetry or poetic significance outside of large sample readings of rhyme schemes for example. Emma Newport, from the University of Sussex, considered digitised end-of-life writing via the unusual case of the popular Mumsnet contributor IamtheZombie, whose posthumous in memoriam comments from fellow Mumsnet users formed an innovative kind of obituary, a cellular tissue of text that democratised the death process and made end-of-life writing a collaborative act.

Joanna Zylinska’s keynote speech, entitled ‘Creative Computers, Art Robots and AI Dreams,’ drew together the prevalent themes of the day, excavating the myth of the robot to determine that humans, especially the great artists amongst us, have always been technological. Zylinska used various art-AI projects, including Taryn Southern’s AI generated music and The Rembrandt Microsoft Project (involving AI creating an imitation Rembrandt painting), in order to interrogate the value of AI artistic production, delineate how our senses construct the world we inhabit, and ask what it means that seeing, for example, no longer requires a human looker. The result was a critique of AI as that which exponentially amplifies our desires and therefore marketability, as well as an optimism for the possible joys of robotic and AI art, described by Zylinska as ludic creation.

Day two began with a panel on epistemology. Emma Stamm of Virginia Tech presented a paper on the renaissance of psychedelic science and the implications this field could have for AI. Stamm described the importance of qualitative over quantitative methods of research, arguing that qualitative research into psychedelic drugs problematises the positivist and generalising principles of machine learning as a basis for AI. Juljan Krause from the University of Southampton followed with his thoughts on representations of quantum computing in popular science discourse. Krause offered an interesting overview of how the emerging technology of quantum computing functions differently from present modes of computation. He then explored media representations of quantum computation, which portray an ongoing quantum computational arms race (led by China).

The penultimate panel revolved around the theme of aesthetics. In his paper on art and artificial intelligence Michael Haworth reconfigured the relationship between human and machine as an equal coupling, a functional interdependence manifest in the example of AARON, the painting and drawing robot. Haworth relayed how the creativity of AARON rests in the relation between the program and programmer, an interplay that performs a structural shift from the human as tool user to the human as engineer and organiser. Following Haworth, Dominique Baron-Bonarjee presented a performative lecture during which she enacted Liquidity, an embodied, meditative practice that she designed to explore ideas of free time in an increasingly automated age. Baron-Bonarjee monitored the activity of her brain throughout the lecture using a MUSE headband which measured her brain waves.

Memory and Time formed the focus of the final panel, offering an eclectic range of thoughts on automation and redundancy, logistics and inscribed narrative time. Kieran Brayford discussed the possible ramifications of mass technological unemployment and forced leisure time, coming to similar conclusions as Phelan with regards to the limitations of automated agents as unable to explain significance. Eva-Maria Nyckel’s followed Brayford’s more general overview with a specific example of automated industry in the form of Amazon’s anticipatory shipping method. Nyckel used a patent for the shipping method as the basis to unpack the potentially huge impact it could have on the temporality of logistical processes. In a change of topic, Daniel Barrow of Birkbeck University turned to contemporary experimental fiction and the technological, inhuman agency of Big Data, which finds its form in a static and autonomous narrative time.

To close the conference a number of notable Sussex based academics and researchers came together for a round table discussion. Taking part were Caroline Bassett, Peter Boxall, David M. Berry, Beatrice Fazi, Simon McGregor and Michael Jonik, all of whom were asked to choose one key word that would explain their research. Boxall chose the word ‘artificiality’ as a recourse to explore its supposed opposite- the human. He offered the idea of the Augustinian human as somewhere between beast and angel, a figure made legible according to taxonomies that we map onto it. McGregor’s word was ‘alien’. As a cognitive scientist McGregor explained that the world is full of minds that cannot be reduced to their materiality and are eternally separated by an unbroachable void. Any attempts to understand these minds would aid efforts to predict their behaviour but would also bring us further away from other humans. Other keywords included intelligence, contingency, mastery, and critical reason, with final thoughts settling on the infinitude of computation, the passive intellect of algorithmic infrastructure, and the potential for the world to continue in the absence of humans.

Over its two days, Intelligent Futures gathered a range of richly provocative critical interventions, and created spaces for stimulating discussion of Artificial Intelligence. It demonstrated the importance of further critical, interdisciplinary study of Artificial Intelligence, as it continues to inform, and to transform, the societies we live in.

Maisie Ridgway is a CHASE funded PhD student at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include ideas of pre-digital poetics from Joyce to present, the viral vitality of language and the points at which science and literature intersect, mutually informing each other.

SF and the future of security: an interview with Ping Zheng

Defiant Today
‘Defiant Today’ Phil Jones

In late December 2017, a group of writers and scholars of SF, scientists and technologists, and defence analysts and policymakers, gathered at Dstl (UK government’s defence science and technology laboratory) in Salisbury to explore science fiction’s contribution to defence policy. Vector caught up with Dr Ping Zheng from Canterbury Christ Church University Business School, to ask her about her impressions of the day, and a few other things …

During the first breakout session, you were in the Human Behaviour in Smart Environments group. How did that go?

ping 1
Dr Ping Zheng

We had some inspiring discussions about how humans may react in smart environments. I think the group dynamics probably extended the scope of planned discussions, and allowed us to engage in more diversified discourse, ranging from individual perspectives, to emergent impacts at a societal level, and also to policy perspectives. For example, two prominent issues were debated: national and cultural differences, and ethical concerns such as privacy.

Perhaps the value of events like these is that you might discover that your original questions can be re-framed, or that your stakeholders are not precisely who you imagined them to be. Your other breakout session was ‘Defence (In)efficiency: What Does the Future Hold?’?

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Robotics, science fiction and the search for the perfect artificial woman

File 20171024 30565 p2y72k.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Ociacia/Shutterstock.com

Irena Hayter, University of Leeds

Three photographs have been shortlisted for 2017’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in London. But there is something out of the ordinary about one of this year’s contenders for the prize. One of the portraits – by the Finnish artist Maija Tammi – is not of a human, but a female android.

The android in the photograph is Erica, described by her creator, Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, as “the most beautiful and intelligent” robot in the world. The hardware beneath her silicone skin helps her achieve facial and mouth movements, but these can be rather unnatural, out of sync with her synthesised voice. She is cognitively sophisticated, though still unable to work out answers to complex questions from first principles, and she cannot move her arms and legs.

If this seems like something out of science fiction, you’re not far off. One of Ishiguro’s first female robots was named Repliee Q1 and he himself has said that the name derives from the French for “replicate” and from the “replicants” in Blade Runner: science fiction and robotics have always been entwined. Indeed, in a documentary made by the Guardian about Erica, Ishiguro reveals that he wanted to be an oil painter and insists on the similarities between his work and artistic creation.

It is difficult not to see here a masculine Pygmalionesque desire to create the perfect artificial woman. “Ishiguro-sensei is my father and he understands me entirely,” Erica pronounces in the documentary. Her vaunted autonomy seems more like a projection on the part on the roboticists who programme her thoughts, but also occasionally anthropomorphise her: the scientist who introduces himself as Erica’s “architect” also thinks that she is “really excited to interact with people”.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project).
© Maija Tammi

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BSFA events: Anne Charnock interviewed by Glyn Morgan

The BSFA holds regular events in London, usually on the last Wednesday of the month, at the Artillery Arms near Old Street. These events are free, and open to members and non-members alike. Keep an eye on the BSFA website for news of future events. In November 2017, former Vector editor Glyn Morgan interviewed acclaimed author Anne Charnock, whose first novel A Calculated Life was nominated for a Philip K Dick Award and whose second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind was listed by The Guardian as one of the Science Fiction Books of the Year in 2016. She also regularly takes part in The Ada Lovelace Conversations, a collaborative project between The Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction literature and Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Anne’s latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, is out now.

 Andrew Wallace has checked his watch, confirmed he was there and reports as follows…

What will survive of us is love

dreamsThe themes of Anne’s latest novel Dreams Before the Start of Time evolved from ideas about reproductive technologies likely to be with us within the next forty years. The book explores the psychological, ethical, legal and social implications of these technologies by following generations of the same family into the future as they take advantage of these new opportunities and deal with the unexpected consequences. Anne believes that fiction offers the best means of analytically, emotionally and aesthetically engaging with the potential impacts of innovations and trends, from our ‘reproduction’ as digital selves to artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and the emergence of China as both a strategic world player and presence in our future lives.

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vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.

Fools’ Experiments

Fools’ Experiments by Edward M. Lerner (Tor, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Perhaps this is just an unfair prejudice of mine but as far as I’m concerned any book that uses sound effects is likely to be a bad book. In this case, at least, the cracks and thwocks and blats do indeed herald a writer with very little facility for the English language.

Edward M. Lerner is a traditional SF writer in that he is an engineer who knows a lot about S and not much about F. After ghostwriting a couple of Ringworld prequels for them, this is his first novel proper for Tor and only adds to my sense that something has gone badly wrong with their quality control of late. Fools’ Experiments is a tedious technothriller doled out in 71 bite-sized (but not particularly thrilling) chapters. Although it is divided into thirds, rather than this being a classic three act structure we have a false start, the actual plot and then a pointless retread of the middle third. The story chiefly concerns the emergence of artificial life but the structure of the novel is so broken backed that it is initially hard to tell where our attention is meant to be focussed.

In keeping with the strictures of the technothriller format there are lots of viewpoint characters but they are all drawn so crudely that you would never mistake them for actual human beings. The main characters are initially Doug, a researcher in neural interfaces, and AJ, a researcher in artificial life. In order to differentiate between them Lerner makes Doug a lover of bad puns. He also (since Hollywood has taught him it would be unthinkable to do otherwise) pairs both of them up with hot chicks. Unbelievably in the case of the overweight, middle aged AJ this involves bagging the attractive IT reporter who is interviewing him with the line “nor do I want to know ahead of time what our children will be like.” (143) These poorly realised characters only add to the sense of dislocation as they can disappear for sixty pages at a time whilst the narrative wanders elsewhere and other characters spring up in their place. Not surprisingly Lerner is better with machines than humans. The section where an artificial intelligence breaks free from AJ’s lab, causing devastating to the surrounding area, actually lives up to the genre’s name. Even this becomes interminable after a while though.

RUMIR is a very useful acronym that Karen Burnham invented from an old Joanna Russ review that described a work as “routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable”. In five letters it sums up vast swathes of published SF and it could, charitably, be applied to this novel. Fools’ Experiments is not bad because it is a catastrophic failure, it is bad simply because there is absolutely nothing good about it. In some ways this is even worse, at least with a catastrophe there is a perverse pleasure in seeing what abomination the writer will come up with next. This novel just inspires supreme indifference.

This review originally appeared in Vector #260.