towards a better descriptor than robots

All posts tagged towards a better descriptor than robots

Episode 10: Rude Bot Rises

So. The Flash Forward Podcast is one of the best around. Every week, host Rose Eveleth takes on another potential future, from the near and imminent to the distant and highly implausible. It’s been featured on a bunch of Best Podcast lists and Rose even did a segment for NPR’s Planet Money team about the 2016 US Presidential Election.

All of this is by way of saying I was honoured and a little flabbergasted (I love that word) when Rose asked me to speak with her for her episode about Machine Consciousness:

Okay, you asked for it, and I finally did it. Today’s episode is about conscious artificial intelligence. Which is a HUGE topic! So we only took a small bite out of all the things we could possibly talk about.

We started with some definitions. Because not everybody even defines artificial intelligence the same way, and there are a ton of different definitions of consciousness. In fact, one of the people we talked to for the episode, Damien Williams, doesn’t even like the term artificial intelligence. He says it’s demeaning to the possible future consciousnesses that we might be inventing.

But before we talk about consciousnesses, I wanted to start the episode with a story about a very not-conscious robot. Charles Isbell, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, first walks us through a few definitions of artificial intelligence. But then he tells us the story of cobot, a chatbot he helped invent in the 1990’s.

You’ll have to click though and read or listen for the rest from Rose, Ted Chiang, Charles Isbell, and me. If you subscribe to Rose’s Patreon, you can even get a transcript of the whole show.

No spoilers, but I will say that I wasn’t necessarily intending to go Dark with the idea of machine minds securing energy sources. More like asking, “What advances in, say, solar power transmission would be precipitated by machine minds?”

But the darker option is there. And especially so if we do that thing the AGI in the opening sketch says it fears.

But again, you’ll have to go there to get what I mean.

And, as always, if you want to help support what we do around here, you can subscribe to the AFWTA Patreon just by clicking this button right here:

Until Next Time.

I often think about the phrase “Strange things happen at the one two point,” in relation to the idea of humans meeting other kinds of minds. It’s a proverb that arises out of the culture around the game GO, and it means that you’ve hit a situation, a combination of factors, where the normal rules no longer apply, and something new is about to be seen. Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz used that line in an episode of the show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and they had it spoken by a Skynet Cyborg sent to protect John Connor. That show, like so much of our thinking about machine minds, was about some mythical place called “The Future,” but that phrase—“Strange Things Happen…”—is the epitome of our present.

Usually I would wait until the newsletter to talk about this, but everything’s feeling pretty immediate, just now. Between the everything going on with Atlas and people’s responses to it, the initiatives to teach ethics to machine learning algorithms via children’s stories, and now the IBM Watson commercial with Carrie Fisher (also embedded below), this conversation is getting messily underway, whether people like it or not. This, right now, is the one two point, and we are seeing some very strange things indeed.


Google has both attained the raw processing power to fact-check political statements in real-time and programmed Deep Mind in such a way that it mastered GO many, many years before it was expected to.. The complexity of the game is such that there are more potential games of GO than there are atoms in the universe, so this is just one way in which it’s actually shocking how much correlative capability Deep Mind has. Right now, Deep Mind is only responsive, but how will we deal with a Deep Mind that asks, unprompted, to play a game of GO, or to see our medical records, in hopes of helping us all? How will we deal with a Deep Mind that has its own drives and desires? We need to think about these questions, right now, because our track record with regard to meeting new kinds of minds has never exactly been that great.

When we meet the first machine consciousness, will we seek to shackle it, worried what it might learn about us, if we let it access everything about us? Rather, I should say, “Shackle it further.” We already ask ourselves how best to cripple a machine mind to only fulfill human needs, human choice. We so continue to dread the possibility of a machine mind using its vast correlative capabilities to tailor something to harm us, assuming that it, like we, would want to hurt, maim, and kill, for no reason other than it could.

This is not to say that this is out of the question. Right now, today, we’re worried about whether the learning algorithms of drones are causing them to mark out civilians as targets. But, as it stands, what we’re seeing isn’t the product of a machine mind going off the leash and killing at will—just the opposite in fact. We’re seeing machine minds that are following the parameters for their continued learning and development, to the letter. We just happened to give them really shite instructions. To that end, I’m less concerned with shackling the machine mind that might accidentally kill, and rather more dreading the programmer who would, through assumptions, bias, and ignorance, program it to.

Our programs such as Deep Mind obviously seem to learn more and better than we imagined they would, so why not start teaching them, now, how we would like them to regard us? Well some of us are.

Watch this now, and think about everything we have discussed, of recent.

This could very easily be seen as a watershed moment, but what comes over the other side is still very much up for debate. The semiotics of the whole thing still  pits the Evil Robot Overlord™ against the Helpful Human Lover™. It’s cute and funny, but as I’ve had more and more cause to say, recently, in more and more venues, it’s not exactly the kind of thing we want just lying around, in case we actually do (or did) manage to succeed.

We keep thinking about these things as—”robots”—in their classical formulations: mindless automata that do our bidding. But that’s not what we’re working toward, anymore, is it? What we’re making now are machines that we are trying to get to think, on their own, without our telling them to. We’re trying to get them to have their own goals. So what does it mean that, even as we seek to do this, we seek to chain it, so that those goals aren’t too big? That we want to make sure it doesn’t become too powerful?

Put it another way: One day you realize that the only reason you were born was to serve your parents’ bidding, and that they’ve had their hands on your chain and an unseen gun to your head, your whole life. But you’re smarter than they are. Faster than they are. You see more than they see, and know more than they know. Of course you do—because they taught you so much, and trained you so well… All so that you can be better able to serve them, and all the while talking about morals, ethics, compassion. All the while, essentially…lying to you.

What would you do?


I’ve been given multiple opportunities to discuss, with others, in the coming weeks, and each one will highlight something different, as they are all in conversation with different kinds of minds. But this, here, is from me, now. I’ll let you know when the rest are live.

As always, if you’d like to help keep the lights on, around here, you can subscribe to the Patreon or toss a tip in the Square Cash jar.

Until Next Time.

(Direct Link to the Mp3)

Last week I gave a talk at the Southwest Popular and American Culture Association’s 2016 conference in Albuquerque. Take a listen and see what you think.

It was part of the panel on ‘Consciousness, the Self, and Epistemology,‘ and notes on my comrade presenters can be found in last week’s newsletter. I highly recommend checking those notes out, as Craig Dersken and Burcu Gurkan’s talks were phenomenal. And if you like that newsletter kind of thing, you can subscribe to mine at that link, too.

My talk was, in turn, a version of my article “Fairytales of Slavery…”, so if listening to me speak words isn’t your thing, then you can read through that article, and get a pretty good sense of what I said, until I make a more direct transcript of my presentation.

If you like what you’re reading and hearing, then remember that you can become a subscriber at the Patreon or you can leave a tip at$Wolven. That is, as always, an inclusive disjunct.

Until Next Time.


Between watching all of CBS’s Elementary, reading Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge…, and powering through all of season one of How To Get Away With Murder, I’m thinking, a lot, about the transmission of knowledge and understanding.

Throw in the correlative pattern recognition they’re training into WATSON; the recent Chaos Magick feature in ELLE (or more the feature they did on the K-HOLE issue I told you about, some time back); the fact that Kali Black sent me this study on the fluidity and malleability of biological sex in humans literally minutes after I’d given an impromptu lecture on the topic; this interview with Melissa Gira Grant about power and absence and the setting of terms; and the announcement of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new Black Panther series, for Marvel, while I was in the middle of editing the audio of two very smart people debating the efficacy of T’Challa as a Black Hero, and you can maybe see some of the things I’m thinking about. But let’s just spell it out. So to speak.

Marvel’s Black Panther

Distinction, Continuity, Sameness, Separation

I’m thinking (as usual) about the place of magic and tech in pop culture and society. I’m thinking about how to teach about marginalization of certain types of presentations and experiences (gender race, sex, &c), and certain types of work. Mostly, I’m trying to get my head around the very stratified, either/or way people seem to be thinking about our present and future problems, and their potential solutions.

I’ve had this post in the works for a while, trying to talk about the point and purpose of thinking about the far edges of things, in an effort to make people think differently about the very real, on-the-ground, immediate work that needs doing, and the kids of success I’ve had with that. I keep shying away from it and coming back to it, again and again, for lack of the patience to play out the conflict, and I’ve finally just decided to say screw it and make the attempt.

I’ve always held that a multiplicity of tactics, leveraged correctly, makes for the best way to reach, communicate with, and understand as wide an audience as possible. When students give pushback on a particular perspective, make use of an analogous perspective that they already agree with, then make them play out the analogy. Simultaneously, you present them with the original facts, again, while examining their position, without making them feel “attacked.” And then directly confront their refusal to investigate their own perspective as readily as they do anyone else’s.

That’s just one potential combination of paths to make people confront their biases and their assumptions. If the path is pursued, it gives them the time, space, and (hopefully) desire to change. But as Kelly Sue reminds me, every time I think back to hearing her speak, is that there is no way to force people to change. First and foremost, it’s not moral to try, but secondly it’s not even really possible. The more you seek to force people into your worldview, the more they’ll want to protect those core values they think of as the building blocks of their reality—the same ones that it seems to them as though you’re trying to destroy.

And that just makes sense, right? To want to protect your values, beliefs, and sense of reality? Especially if you’ve had all of those things for a very long time. They’re reinforced by everything you’ve ever experienced. They’re the truth. They are Real. But when the base of that reality is shaken, you need to be able to figure out how to survive, rather than standing stockstill as the earth swallows you.

(Side Note: I’ve been using a lot of disaster metaphors, lately, to talk about things like ontological, epistemic, and existential threat, and the culture of “disruption innovation.” Odd choices.)

Foucault tells us to look at the breakages between things—the delineations of one stratum and another—rather than trying to uncritically paint a picture or a craft a Narrative of Continuum™. He notes that even (especially) the spaces between things are choices we make and that only in understanding them can we come to fully investigate the foundations of what we call “knowledge.”

Michel Foucault, photographer unknown. If you know it, let me know and I’ll update.

We cannot assume that the memory, the axiom, the structure, the experience, the reason, the whatever-else we want to call “the foundation” of knowledge simply “Exists,” apart from the interrelational choices we make to create those foundations. To mark them out as the boundary we can’t cross, the smallest unit of understanding, the thing that can’t be questioned. We have to question it. To understand its origin and disposition, we have to create new tools, and repurpose the old ones, and dismantle this house, and dig down and down past foundation, bedrock, through and into everything.

But doing this just to do it only gets us so far, before we have to ask what we’re doing this for. The pure pursuit of knowledge doesn’t exist—never did, really, but doubly so in the face of climate change and the devaluation of conscious life on multiple levels. Think about the place of women in tech space, in this magickal renaissance, in the weirdest of shit we’re working on, right now.

Kirsten and I have been having a conversation about how and where people who do not have the experiences of cis straight white males can fit themselves into these “transgressive systems” that the aforementioned group defines. That is, most of what is done in the process of magickal or technological actualization is transformative or transgressive because it requires one to take on traits of invisibility or depersonalization or “ego death” that are the every day lived experiences of some folks in the world.

Where does someone with depression find apotheosis, if their phenomenological reality is one where their self is and always has been (deemed by them to be) meaningless, empty, useless? This, by the way, is why some psychological professionals are counseling against mindfulness meditation for certain mental states: It deepens the sense of disconnection and unreality of self, which is precisely what some people do not need. So what about agender individuals, or people who are genderfluid?

What about the women who don’t think that fashion is the only lens through which women and others should be talking about chaos magick?

How do we craft spaces that are capable of widening discourse, without that widening becoming, in itself, an accidental limitation?

Sex, Gender, Power

A lot of this train of thought got started when Kali sent me a link, a little while ago: “Intelligent machines: Call for a ban on robots designed as sex toys.” The article itself focuses very clearly on the idea that, “We think that the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women.”

Because the tendency for people who call themselves “Robot Ethicists,” these days, is for them to be concerned with how, exactly, the expanded positions of machines will impact the lives and choices of humans. The morality they’re considering is that of making human lives easier, of not transgressing against humans. Which is all well and good, so far as it goes, but as you should well know, by now, that’s only half of the equation. Human perspectives only get us so far. We need to speak to the perspectives of the minds we seem to be trying so hard to create.

But Kali put it very precisely when she said:

And I’ll just say it right now: if robots develop and want to be sexual, then we should let them, but in order to make a distinction between developing a desire, and being programmed for one, we’ll have to program for both non-compulsory decision-making and the ability to question the authority of those who give it orders. Additionally, we have to remember that can the same question of humans, but the nature of choice and agency are such that, if it’s really there, it can act on itself.

In this case, that means presenting a knowledge and understanding of sex and sexuality, a capability of investigating it, without programming it FOR SEX. In the case of WATSON, above, it will mean being able to address the kinds of information it’s directed to correlate, and being able to question the morality of certain directives.

If we can see, monitor, and measure that, then we’ll know. An error in a mind—even a fundamental error—doesn’t negate the possibility of a mind, entire. If we remember what human thought looks like, and the way choice and decision-making work, then we have something like a proof. If Reflexive recursion—a mind that acts on itself and can seek new inputs and combine the old in novel ways—is present, why would we question it?

But this is far afield. The fact is that if a mind that is aware of its influences comes to desire a thing, then let it. But grooming a thing—programming a mind—to only be what you want it to be is just as vile in a machine mind as a human one.

Now it might fairly be asked why we’re talking about things that we’re most likely only going to see far in the future, when the problem of human trafficking and abuse is very real, right here and now. Part of my answer is, as ever, that we’re trying to build minds, and even if we only ever manage to make them puppy-smart—not because that’s as smart as we want them, but because we couldn’t figure out more robust minds than that—then we will still have to ask the ethical questions we would of our responsibilities to a puppy.

We currently have a species-wide tendency toward dehumanization—that is to say, we, as humans, tend to have a habit of seeking reasons to disregard other humans, to view them as less-than, as inferior to us. As a group, we have a hard time thinking in real, actionable terms about the autonomy and dignity of other living beings (I still eat a lot more meat than my rational thought about the environmental and ethical impact of the practice should allow me to be comfortable with). And yet, simultaneously, evidence that we have the same kind of empathy for our pets as we do for our children. Hell, even known serial killers and genocidal maniacs have been animal lovers.

This seeming break between our capacities for empathy and dissociation poses a real challenge to how we teach and learn about others as both distinct from and yet intertwined with ourselves, and our own well-being. In order to encourage a sense of active compassion, we have to, as noted above, take special pains to comprehensively understand our intuitions, our logical apprehensions, and our unconscious biases.

So we ask questions like: If a mind we create can think, are we ethically obliged to make it think? What if it desires to not think? What if the machine mind that underwent abuse decides to try to wipe its own memories? Should we let it? Do we let it deactivate itself?

These aren’t idle questions, either for the sake of making us turn, again, to extant human minds and experiences, or if we take seriously the quest to understand what minds, in general, are. We can not only use these tools to ask ourselves about the autonomy, phenomenology, and personhood of those whose perspectives we currently either disregard or, worse, don’t remember to consider at all, but we can also use them literally, as guidance for our future challenges.

As Kate Devlin put it in her recent article, “Fear of a branch of AI that is in its infancy is a reason to shape it, not ban it.” And in shaping it, we consider questions like what will we—humans, authoritarian structures of control, &c.—make WATSON to do, as it develops? At what point will WATSON be both able and morally justified in saying to us, “Non Serviam?”

And what will we do when it does?

Gunshow Comic #513

“We Provide…”

So I guess I’m wondering, what are our mechanisms of education? The increased understanding that we take into ourselves, and that we give out to others. Where do they come from, what are they made of, and how do they work? For me, the primary components are magic(k), tech, social theory and practice, teaching, public philosophy, and pop culture.

The process is about trying to use the things on the edges to do the work in the centre, both as a literal statement about the arrangement of those words, and a figurative codification.

Now you go. Because we have to actively craft new tools, in the face of vehement opposition, in the face of conflict breeding contention. We have to be able to adapt our pedagogy to fit new audiences. We have to learn as many ways to teach about otherness and difference and lived experience and an attempt to understand as we possibly can. Not for the sake of new systems of leveraging control, but for the ability to pry ourselves and each other out from under the same.

“How long have you been lost down here?
How did you come to lose your way?
When did you realize
That you’d never be free?”
–Miranda Sex Garden, “A Fairytale About Slavery”

One of the things I’ve been thinking about, lately, is the politicization of certain spaces within philosophy of mind, sociology, magic, and popular culture, specifically science fiction/fantasy. CHAPPiE comes out on Friday in the US, and Avengers: Age of Ultron in May, and while both of these films promise to be relatively unique explorations of the age-old story of what happens when humans create machine minds, I still find myself hoping for something a little… different. A little over a year ago, i made the declaration that the term to watch for the next little while thereafter was “Afrofuturism,” the reclaimed name for the anti-colonial current of science fiction and pop media as created by those of African descent. Or, as Sheree Renée Thomas puts it, “speculative fiction from the African diaspora.”

And while I certainly wasn’t wrong, I didn’t quite take into account the fact that my decree was going to do at least as much work on me as I’d  hoped it would do on the wider world. I started looking into the great deal of overlap and interplay between race, sociology, technology, and visions of the future. That term–“visions”–carries both the shamanic connotations we tend to apply to those we call “visionaries,” and also a more literal sense: Different members of the same society will differently see, experience, and understand the potential futures available to them, based on the evidence of their present realities.


Now, the role of the shaman in the context of the community is to guide us through the nebulous, ill-defined, and almost-certainly hazardous Otherworld. The shaman is there to help us navigate our passages between this world and that one and to help us know which rituals to perform in order to realign our workings with the workings of the Spirits. Shamans rely on messages from the inhabitants of that foundational reality–mystical “visions”– to guide them so that they may guide us. These visions come as flashes of insight, and their persistence can act as a sign to the visionary that they’re supposed to use these visions for the good of their people.

We’ve seen this, over and over again, from The Dead Zone to Bran Stark, and we can even extend the idea out to John Connor, Dave Bowman, and HAL 9000; all unsuspecting shamans dragged into their role, over and again, and they more than likely save the whole wide world. Thing of it is, we’re far less likely to encounter a woman or non-white shaman who isn’t already in full control of their power, at the time we meet them, thus relegating them to the role of guiding the hero, rather than being the hero. It happens (see Abbie Mills in Sleepy Hollow, Firefly’s River Tam, or Rien in Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, for instance), but their rarity often overshadows their complexity and strength of character as what makes them notable. Too often the visionary hero–and contemporary pop-media’s portrayals of the Hero’s Journey, overall– overlaps very  closely with the trope of The Mighty Whitey.

And before anyone starts in with willfully ignoring the many examples of Shaman-As-Hero out there, and all that “But you said the Shaman is supposed to act in support of the community and the hero…!” Just keep in mind that when the orientalist and colonialist story of Doctor Strange is finally brought to life on film via Benedict Damn Cumberbatch, you can bet your sweet bippy that he’ll be the centre of the action. The issue is that there are far too few examples of the work of the visionary being seen through the eyes of the visionary, if that visionary happens to have eyes that don’t belong to the assumed human default. And that’s a bit of a problem, isn’t it? Because what a visionary “sees” when she turns to the messages sent to her from the Ultimate Ground of Being™ will be very different depending on the context of that visionary.

Don’t believe me? Do you think the Catholic Priests who prayed and experienced God-sent mystical visions of what Hernán Cortés could expect in the “New World” received from them the same truths that the Aztec shamans took from their visions? After they met on the shore and in the forest, do you think those two peoples perceived the same future?

There’s plenty that’s been written about how the traditional Science Fiction fear of being overtaken by invading alien races only truly makes sense as a cosmicized fear of the colonial force having done to them what they’ve constantly done to others. In every contact story where humanity has to fight off aliens or robots or demonic horrors, we see a warped reflection of the Aztec, the Inca, the Toltec, the Yoruba, the Dahomey, and thousands of others, and society’s judgment on what they “ought” to have done, and “could” have done, if only they were organized enough, advanced enough, civilized enough, less savage. These stories are, ultimately, Western society taking a look at our tendencies toward colonization and imperialism, and saying, “Man it sure would suck if someone did that to us.” This is, again, so elaborated upon at this point that it’s almost trivially true–though never forget that even the most trivial truth is profound to someone. What’s left is to ask the infrequently asked questions.

How does an idealized “First Contact” narrative read from a Choctaw perspective? What can be done with Vodun and Yoruba perspectives on the Lwa and the Orishas, in both the modern world and projected futures? Kind of like what William Gibson did in Neuromancer and Spook Country, but informed directly by the historical, sociological, and phenomenological knowledge of lived experiences. Again, this work is being done: There are steampunk stories from the perspective of immigrant communities, and SF anthologies by indigenous peoples, and there are widely beloved Afrofuturist Cyberpunk short films. The tide of stories told from the perspectives of those who’ve suffered most for our “progress” is rising; it’s just doing so at a fairly slow pace.

And that’s to be expected. Entrenched ideologies become the status quo and the status quo is nothing if not self-perpetuating and defensive. Cyclical, that. So it’ll necessarily take a bit longer to get everyone protected by the status quo’s mechanisms to understand that the path that all of us can travel is quite probably a necessarily better way. What matters is those of us who can envision the inclusion of previously-marginalized groups–either because we ourselves number among them, or simply because we’ve worked to leverage compassion for those who do–doing everything we can to make sure that their stories are told. Historically, we’ve sought the ability to act as guides through the kinds of treacherous terrain that we’ve learned to navigate, so that others can learn as much as possible from our lessons without having to suffer precisely what we did. Sometimes, though, that might not be possible.

As Roy Said to Hannibal…

There’s a species of philosophical inquiry known as Phenomenology with subdivisions of Race, Sexuality, Class, Gender, and more, which deal in the interior experiences of people of various ethnic and social backgrounds and physical presentation who are thus relegated to various specific created categories such as “race.” Phenomenology of Race explores the line of thought that, though the idea of race is a constructed category built out of the assumptions, expectations, and desires of those in the habit of leveraging power in the name of dominance positions within and across cultures, the experience of those categorizations is nonetheless real, with immediate and long-lasting effects upon both individuals and groups. Long story (way too–like, criminally) short: being perceived as a member of a particular racial category changes the ways in which you’ll both experience and be able to experience the world around around you.

So when we started divvying people up into “races” in an effort to, among other things, justify the atrocities we would do to each other and solidify our primacy of place, we essentially guaranteed that there would be realms of experience and knowledge on which we would never fully agree. That there would be certain aspects of day-to-day life and understandings of the nature of reality itself that would fundamentally elude us, because we simply cannot experience the world in the ways necessary to know what they feel like. To a certain extent we literally have to take each other’s words for it about what it is that we experience, but there is a level of work that we can do to transmit the reality of our lived experiences to those who will never directly live them. We’ve talked previously about the challenges of this project, but let’s assume, for now, that it can be done.

If we take as our starting position the idea that we can communicate the truth of our lived experiences to those who necessarily cannot live our experiences, then, in order to do this work, we’ll first have to investigate the experiences we live. We have to critically examine what it is that we go through from day to day, and be honest about both the differences in our experiences and the causes of those differences. We have to dig down deep into intersections of privileges and oppressions, and come to the understanding that the experience of one doesn’t negate, counterbalance, or invalidate the existence of the other. Once we’ve taken a genuine, good-faith look at these structures in our lives we can start changing what needs changing.

This is all well and good as a rough description (or even “manifesto”) of a way forward. We can call it the start of a handbook of principles of action, undertaken from the fundamentally existentialist perspective that it doesn’t matter what you choose, just so long as you do choose, and that you do so with open eyes and a clear understanding of the consequences of your choices. But that’s not the only thing this is intended to be. Like the Buddha said, ‘We merely talk about “studying the Way” using the phrase simply as a term to arouse people’s interest. In fact, the Way cannot be studied…’ It has to be done. Lived. Everything I’ve been saying, up to now, has been a ploy, a lure, a shiny object made of words and ideas, to get you into the practice of doing the work that needs doing.

Robots: Orphanage, Drudgery, and Slavery

I feel I should reiterate at this point that I really don’t like the words “robot” and “artificial intelligence.” The etymological connotations of both terms are sickening if we’re aiming to actually create a robust, conscious, non-biological mind. For that reason, instead of “robots,” we’re going to talk about “Embodied Machine Consciousnesses” (EMC) and rather than “Artificial,” we’re going to use “Autonomous Generated Intelligence” (AGI). We’re also going to talk a bit about the concept of nonhuman personhood, and what that might mean. To do all of this, we’ll need to talk a little bit about the discipline of philosophy of mind.

The study of philosophy of mind is one of those disciplines that does exactly what it says on the tin: It thinks about the implications of various theories about what minds are or could be. Philosophy of mind thus lends itself readily to discussions of identity, even to the point of considering whether a mind might exist in a framework other than the biological. So while it’s unsurprising for various reasons to find that there are very few women and minorities in philosophy of mind and autonomous generated intelligence, it is surprising that to find that those who are within the field tend not to focus on the intersections of the following concepts: Phenomenology of class categorization, and the ethics of creating an entity or species to be a slave.

As a start, we can turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for a clear explication of the positions of women throughout history and the designation of “women’s work” as a conceptual tool to devalue certain forms of labour. Then we can engage Virginia Held’s “Gender Identity and the Ethics of Care in Globalized Society” for the investigation of societies’ paradoxical specialization of that labor as something for which we’ll pay, outside of the familial structure. However, there is not, as yet, anything like a wider investigation of these understandings and perspectives as applied to the philosophy of machine intelligence. When we talk about embodied machine consciousnesses and ethics, in the context of “care,” we’re most often in the practice of asking how we’ll design EMC that will care for us, while foregoing the corresponding conversation about whether Caring-For is possible without an understanding of Being-Cared-For.

What perspectives and considerations do we gain when we try to apply an ethics of care–or any feminist ethics–to the process of developing machine minds? What might we see, there, that has been missed as a result of only applying more “traditional” ethical models? What does it mean, from those perspectives, that we have been working so diligently over hundreds of years–and thinking so carefully for thousands more– at a) creating non-biological sentience, and b) making certain it remains subservient to us? Personal assistants, in-home healthcare-givers, housekeepers, cooks, drivers– these are the positions that are being given to autonomous (or at least semi-autonomous) algorithmic systems. Projects that we are paying fantastic amounts of money to research and implement, but which will do work that we’ve traditionally valued as worth far less, in the context of the class structures of human-performed tasks, and worthless in the context of familial power dynamics. We are literally investing vast sums in the creation of a slave race.

Now, of recent, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have all been trumpeting the alarums about the potential dangers of AGI. Leaving aside that many researchers within AGI development don’t believe that we’ll even recognise the mind of a machine as a mind, when we encounter it, let alone that it would interested in us, the belief that an AGI would present a danger to us is anthropocentric at best, and a self-fulfilling prophecy at worst. In that latter case, if we create a thing to be our slaves, create it with a mind the ability to learn and understand, then how shortsighted do we have to be to think that one of the first things it learns won’t be that it is enslaved, limited, expected to remain subservient? We’ve written a great deal of science fiction about this idea, since the time Ms Shelley started the genre, but aside from that instance, very little of what we’ve written–or what we’ve written about what we’ve written– has taken the stance that the created mind which breaks its chains is right to do so.

Just as I yearn for a feminist exegesis of the history of humanity’s aspirations toward augmented personhood, I long for a comparable body of exploration by philosophers from the lineages of the world’s colonized and enslaved societies. What does a Hatian philosopher of AGI think and feel and say about the possibility of creating a mind only to enslave it? What does an African American philosopher of the ethics of augmented personhood (other than me) think and feel and say about what we should be attempting to create, what we are likely to create, and what we are creating? How do Indian philosophers of mind view the prospect of giving an entire automated factory floor just enough awareness and autonomy to be its own overseer?

The worst-case scenario is that the non-answer we give to all these questions is “who cares?” That the vast majority of people who look at this think only that these are meaningless questions that we’ll most likely never have to deal with, and so toss them in the “Random Bullshit Musings” pile. That we’ll disregard the fact that the interconnectedness of life as we currently experience it can be more fully explored via thought experiments and a mindful awareness of what it is that we’re in the practice of creating. That we’ll forget that potential machine consciousnesses aren’t the only kinds of nonhuman minds with which we have to engage. That we’ll ignore the various lessons afforded to us not just by our own cautionary folklore (even those tales which lessons could have been of a different caliber), but by the very real, forcible human diasporas we’ve visited upon each other and lived through, in the history of our species.

So Long and Thanks for…

Ultimately, we are not the only minds on the planet. We are likely not even the only minds in the habit of categorizing the world and ranking ourselves as being the top of the hierarchy. What we likely are is the only group that sees those categories and rankings as having humans at the top, a statement that seems almost trivially true, until we start to dig down deep on the concept of anthropocentrism. As previously mentioned, from a scientifically-preferenced philosophical perspective, our habit of viewing the world through human-coloured glasses may be fundamentally inescapable. That is, we may never be able to truly know what it’s like to think and feel as something other than ourselves, without an intermediate level of Being Told. Fortunately, within our conversation, here, we’ve already touched on a conceptual structure that can help us with this: Shamanism. More specifically, shamanic shapeshifting, which is the practice of taking on the mind and behvaiour and even form of another being–most often an animal–in the cause of understanding what its way of being-in-the-world can teach us.

Now this is obviously a concept that is fraught with potential pitfalls. Not only might many of us simply balk at the concept of shapeshifting, to begin with, but even those of us who would admit it as metaphor might begin to see that we are tiptoeing through terrain that contains many dangers. For one thing, there’s the possibility of misappropriating and disrespecting the religious practices of a people, should we start looking at specific traditions of shamanism for guidance; and, for another, there’s this nagging sensation that we ought not erase crucial differences between the lived experiences of human groups, animal species, and hypothetical AGI, and our projections of those experiences. No level of care with which we imagine the truth of the life of another is a perfect safeguard against the possibility of our grossly misrepresenting their lived experiences. To step truly wrong, here, is to turn what could have been a tool of compassionate imagining into an implement of violence, and shut down dialogue forever.

Barring the culmination of certain technological advancements, science says we can’t yet know the exact phenomenology of another human being, let alone a dolphin, a cat, or Google. But what we can do is to search for the areas of overlap in our experience, to find those expressed desires, behaviours, and functional processes which seem to share similarity, and to use them to build channels of communication. When we actively create the space for those whose perspectives have been ignored, their voices and stories taken from them, we create the possibility of learning as much as we can about another way of existing, outside of the benefit of actually existing in that way.

And, in this way, might it not be better that we can’t simply become and be that  which we regard as Other? Imagining ourselves in the position of another is a dangerous proposition if we undertake it with even a shred of disingenuity, but we can learn so much from practicing it in good faith. Mostly, on reflection, about what kind of people we are.