Cyborg Theology and An Anthropology of Robots and AI

Scott Midson’s Cyborg Theology and Kathleen Richardson’s An Anthropology of Robots and AI both trace histories of technology and human-machine interactions, and both make use of fictional narratives as well as other theoretical techniques. The goal of Midson’s book is to put forward a new understanding of what it means to be human, an understanding to supplant the myth of a perfect “Edenic” state and the various disciplines’ dichotomous oppositions of “human” and “other.” This new understanding, Midson says, exists at the intersection of technological, theological, and ecological contexts,and he argues that an understanding of the conceptual category of the cyborg can allow us to understand this assemblage in a new way.

That is, all of the categories of “human,” “animal,” “technological,” “natural,” and more are far more porous than people tend to admit and their boundaries should be challenged; this understanding of the cyborg gives us the tools to do so. Richardson, on the other hand, seeks to argue that what it means to be human has been devalued by the drive to render human capacities and likenesses into machines, and that this drive arises from the male-dominated and otherwise socialized spaces in which these systems are created. The more we elide the distinction between the human and the machine, the more we will harm human beings and human relationships.

Midson’s training is in theology and religious studies, and so it’s no real surprise that he primarily uses theological exegesis (and specifically an exegesis of Genesis creation stories), but he also deploys the tools of cyborg anthropology (specifically Donna Haraway’s 1991 work on cyborgs), sociology, anthropology, and comparative religious studies. He engages in interdisciplinary narrative analysis and comparison,exploring the themes from several pieces of speculative fiction media and the writings of multiple theorists from several disciplines.

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Colonialism and the Technologized Other

One of the things I’m did this past spring was an independent study—a vehicle by which to move through my dissertation’s tentative bibliography, at a pace of around two books at time, every two weeks, and to write short comparative analyses of the texts. These books covered intersections of philosophy, psychology, theology, machine consciousness, and Afro-Atlantic magico-religious traditions, I thought my reviews might be of interest, here.

My first two books in this process were Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question, and while I didn’t initially have plans for the texts to thematically link, the first foray made it pretty clear that patterns would emerge whether I consciously intended or not.

[Image of a careworn copy of Frantz Fanon’s BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS, showing a full-on image of a Black man’s face wearing a white anonymizing eye-mask.]

In choosing both Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Gunkel’s The Machine Question, I was initially worried that they would have very little to say to each other; however, on reading the texts, I instead found myself struck by how firmly the notions of otherness and alterity were entrenched throughout both. Each author, for very different reasons and from within very different contexts, explores the preconditions, the ethical implications, and a course of necessary actions to rectify the coming to be of otherness.

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On Magick, Technology, Philosophy, and Pop-Culture

Those are my main areas of interest. It may not sound like a whole lot, but you’d honestly be surprised at the kind of mileage you can get out of recombining them and applying them as lenses through which to look at the world.

Hello. I’m Damien Williams, known by many of you as Wolven. Klint did a pretty fantastic job of introducing me, last time, so I’m not going to rehash any of that. What I want to do, right now, is to point you at a few places where you can get a decent sense for the kinds of plans I have for what we’re going to be doing, around here.

First, there is, of course, the Mindful Cyborgs interview I did with Klint.

Then there’s my presentation from Magick.Codes.

My Master’s Thesis.

My article “Fairytales Of Slavery: Societal Distinctions, Technoshamanism, and Nonhuman Personhood.

And this atemporal conversation between myself and M1K3y, over at the Cosmic Anthropology Podcast.

What I want to be doing here is taking the time to engage in conversations with multiple thinkers about philosophical, religious, political, and occult perspectives on our science fictional present, and posting the audio, video, or transcriptions of either of those. I want to do this with some major frequency, but that requires the time and space to do so.

Which brings me to my next point: A discussion of an overarching framework of where A Future Worth Thinking About and Technoccult are headed. “Protected: Thinking About the Worth of the Future: Logistics.”

To be frank, it’s a money conversation. As I say, there, “I know we’re usually encouraged to not discuss anything as gauche as cash, in Western Society, but since we’re somehow still using a system of psychologically transferred and collectively-agreed-upon value to determine who gets to eat food, I say fuck it. Let’s talk it out.”

So please take a look, there, then tell your friends.

The Technoccult Tumblr is here.

Twitter handles are @Wolven and @Techn0ccult

The Perfunctory Facebook Page is here.

You can sign up for the newsletter here.

And as always, the Patreon is here.

That’s enough, for now. I need to go get back to work on some more substantive posts. See you next time. And thanks.

Why Robocops Need to be Less Efficient Than Human Coaps

iRobot security robot

New from me at Wired:

Automation is also framed as a way to make law enforcement more efficient. A red light camera can catch a lot more violations than a human can.

The rub is that extreme efficiency isn’t necessarily good thing. That’s what a group of researchers argue in a paper presented earlier this year at a conference on robot law in Miami. They go so far as to argue that inefficiency should be preserved, even increased, as we move to automated law enforcement.

That may sound counter-intuitive, but in the end, it makes good sense. Woodrow Hartzog, an assistant professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of law and co-author of the paper, tells WIRED that, in some cases, making law enforcement less efficient just means putting humans back in the loop, allowing room for “inefficient” human judgments like mercy and compassion. “A robot can’t forgive certain infractions that are generally accepted,” he says.

Full Story: Wired: Why Robocops Need to be Less Efficient Than Human Coaps

Mindful Cyborgs talk with Kate Darling About Legal Rights for Robots

This week Chris Dancy and I talk with MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling about the case for legal protections for robots.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Emoji-ing Robots Seek to Fathom Their Origin

Mindful Cyborgs: Farm Drones, the Human API and More

I missed recording the latest Mindful Cyborgs, but Chris Dancy and Alex Williams talked about farm drones, the Human API, Moves (before it was acquired by Facebook!), the Indie Web and more.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Drone Shopping with Farmers

Report: 47% of U.S. Jobs At Risk of Being Automated Out of Existence

You’ve probably already seen news stories floating around a couple weeks ago about how 47% of jobs are in danger of being automated. The stories are based on a report that looked at 702 different occupations and ranked them based on how likely they are to be automatable based on advances in machine learning, machine vision and robotics. I took a look through the report and thought I’d share some thoughts.

Caveats Methodology aside, the report only predicts that probability that a job could, eventually, be automated, not that it will be automated. More on that later, but for one thing it means they can’t predict how long it will take for a particular job to be displaced (they suggest it will take a decade or two, and the most automatable jobs will go first), or what percentage of people in a field will be replaced. Also, they don’t talk much about economics of replacement — whether it might be cheaper to pay humans than to buy and maintain robots for some positions. One thing I’m not sure about is whether the 47% is meant to apply to the total number of job types (if so, I’m not sure what the cut-off point is) or if it means 47% of all currently employed people are at risk of being replaced (which I think is what they actually mean).

Automation Winners and Losers According to the report the safest jobs, predictably, are in engineering, health care and creative work. Managers and supervisors are also pretty safe. Journalists are relatively safe, but my old profession — computer support — is in danger. The hardest hit will be the working class. Even skilled workers like plumbers, welders, machinists and truck drivers — the sorts of skilled workers there are reportedly shortages of — are in danger (electricians, however, are relatively safe).

Other Potential Losers It doesn’t address other supply and demand issues. For example, there are more law school graduates now than ever, so although most legal work can’t be automated, it doesn’t make law a “safe” profession. It also doesn’t address the effects of some portion of work becoming automated, thus reducing the number of people needed. To use law as an example again, software tools make the discovery process easier, reducing the number of lawyers and paralegals required to do that task. In journalism, some types of reporting have already been successfully automated. I’ve argued before that most types of writing and reporting will still need to be done by humans, but more sophisticated tools could reduce the total number of journalists required to run a profitable publication. Many types of professionals, including engineers and doctors — could be vulnerable to such disruption as well.

Social and Cultural Factors It also doesn’t address social or political trends that might protect some workers. It’s my understanding — though I could be wrong — that freight trains could operate with far fewer human workers than they do, but the union keeps humans in many roles. Likewise, unions or professional organizations could protect some careers, like taxi drivers and truckers, by pushing for legislation that requires a human operator ride along with self-driving vehicles “just in case.” Some workers, like food servers, bartenders and black jack dealers, may be preserved by cultural norms.

Doom But even if only half the jobs they believe are likely to be automatable are actually automated, that’s still about 23.5% of all types of jobs. That means things will get worse for everyone as A) more people will be competing for the jobs that are left and B) unemployed people will spend less money, reducing the demand for the products and services provided by the non-automated professions. And while the industrial revolution created many new types of jobs to help replace those displaced by machinery, there’s no guarantee that will happen again. Even if it does, it could take years for enough new jobs to emerge to replace the old ones.

Scientists Plan To Upload Bee Consciousness To Robots

A bee

George Dvorsky writes:

A new project has been announced in which scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex are hoping to create the first accurate computer simulation of a honey bee brain — and then upload it into an autonomous flying robot.

This is obviously a huge win for science — but it could also save the world. The researchers hope a robotic insect could supplement or replace the shrinking population of honey bees that pollinate essential plant life.

io9: New project aims to upload a honey bee’s brain into a flying insectobot by 2015

Previously: Can You Imagine a Future Where London Police Bees Conduct Genetic Surveillance?

Photo by Steve Jurvetson / CC

For DARPA, What’s After Autonomous Cars? Humanoid Robots

Word on the street is that DARPA is following up its autonomous vehicles Grand Challenge with a humanoid robots challenge. According to Travis Deyle:

It seems we’re going to have a new DARPA Grand Challenge! The BAA with formal details should be out very soon, but for now we’re bringing you the unofficial, preliminary details based on notes from Dr. Gill Pratt’s talk at DTRA Industry Day: The new Grand Challenge is for a humanoid robot (with a bias toward bipedal designs) that can be used in rough terrain and for industrial disasters. The robot will be required to maneuver into and drive an open-frame vehicle (eg. tractor), proceed to a building and dismount, ingress through a locked door using a key, traverse a 100 meter rubble-strewn hallway, climb a ladder, locate a leaking pipe and seal it by closing off a nearby valve, and then replace a faulty pump to resume normal operations — all semi-autonomously with just “supervisory teleoperation.” That’s a tough challenge, but it should be fun! It looks like there will be six hardware teams to develop new robots, and twelve software teams using a common platform (PETMAN anyone?!). The most crazy part about all of this: The United States is getting back into the humanoid robot game… in a big way! […]

The US has largely turned its back on legged humanoid robots over the last two decades (unlike Japan). I actually thought this was a good? thing, particularly for service and home robots, but perhaps the military perspective is altogether different? This is sort of ironic given that Japanese roboticists are (somewhat) refocusing on non-legged robots in the wake of the Fukushima embarrassment. [For those not in the know, Japanese roboticists have been chided by the government for their inability to apply robots in the disaster. Furthermore, there was some embarrassment when iRobot, a foreign company, stepped in to lend robotic assistance. ]

Hizook: New DARPA Grand Challenge for Humanoid Robots — Preliminary (Unofficial) Details

Where Do Companies Get Ideas for New Robots? They Look at Areas with Lots of Manual Labor

Cup of Robots

Julia Kirby writes:

I heard about other applications — the use of robots to inspect sewers for damage, to automate warehouse operations, to harvest crops in fields. The list goes on. In response to one would-be entrepreneur’s question, “How do you come up with a good idea to turn into a business?” a panel of CEOs had no end of answers.

Charles Grinnell, who leads Harvest Automation, said simply: look at places where there is still a lot of manual labor. When his team did that, he says they narrowed things down to 15 very viable product ideas. Deborah Theobald, CEO of Vecna Technologies, put it this way: “In whatever field you work in—ours is healthcare—you see what the issues are. If as you look around, robots are on your mind, you see the applications everywhere.”

Harvard Business Review: Seeing Robots Everywhere

(via Race Against the Machine)

Artwork by hobvias sudoneighm

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